How Do Police Rule Out Foul Play?

Also, why don’t they just call it “murder?”

Richard Descoings.
French academic and political adviser Richard Descoings

Photograph by Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images.

French academic and political adviser Richard Descoings was found dead in his room at New York’s Michelangelo Hotel on Tuesday. Blood was coming out of his mouth, and his cell phone was discovered on a lower-floor landing. Police told reporters they have not ruled out foul play. How would they rule out foul play?

By looking for internal injuries. Most mysterious deaths come from natural causes, accident, or suicide, but even when there are no signs of violence police often make a point of saying they cannot rule out foul play until there’s been an autopsy. Medical examiners sometimes find hidden, superficial clues, such as a small gunshot wound in the victim’s scalp, that escaped police notice. They also check the inside of the victim’s body for evidence of a violent attack. It’s possible to fatally damage someone’s organs without leaving major bruises on his abdomen, for example, and strangulation can cause internal hemorrhaging and damage to neck muscles without leaving a mark on the skin. Advanced toxicology methods can uncover a case of homicidal poisoning, though these are quite rare. (Jeffrey Dahmer is probably the best known poisoner of recent years. He used chloroform and other chemicals to kill some of his victims.)

The medical examiner considers the likelihood of natural or accidental death by reviewing the deceased’s medical background. A history of drug abuse or heart disease can guide the examination and go a long way toward ruling out foul play.

After concluding the investigation, the medical examiner submits a report to police. That report will not, however, include the phrase foul play. Medical examiners only recognize five manners of death: accident, suicide, homicide, natural and undetermined.  Likewise, real-life detectives rarely use the phrase amongst themselves. Some police departments like to say foul play when communicating with the public, precisely because it’s so vague. Words like homicide or murder are much more startling, and the latter entails a legal judgment, too.

The linguistic equation of foul play and murder seems to have arisen in Shakespeare. Throughout the Middle Ages, the phrase was used to describe unfair conduct of any kind, but the title character of Hamlet blames his father’s death on “some foul play” after learning that the late king’s ghost has been seen roaming the castle. King Hamlet’s ghost also implores his son to revenge his “murder most foul.” (“Foul murder” would become a fairly common English phrase through at least the early 20th century.)

In his 1887 book A Glossary of Obscure Words and Phrases in the Writings of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, Scottish author Charles Mackay claimed that Shakespeare used the word foul in a special sense, referencing the Celtic word fuil, meaning “blood or bloody.” While that would be a rather neat etymological explanation for foul play, the claim is probably wrong. According to University of Minnesota linguist Anatoly Liberman, Mackay was a “knowledgeable and well-read lunatic, a monomaniac, whose main purpose in life was to show that all or most English words were derived from Irish Gaelic.” In fact, all senses of the word foul are probably derived from the same German root, and the earliest meaning of the word in English was “rotten.”

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Explainer thanks James Adcock of JMA Forensics, Randy Hanzlick of the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office, Jeffrey Jentzen of the University of Michigan and author of Death Investigation in America: Coroners, Medical Examiners, and the Pursuit of Medical Certainty, Anatoly Liberman, author of the Oxford Etymologist blog, Ronald Singer of the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office, David Crystal, author of Think On My Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language, and Ben Zimmer of the Visual Thesaurus.

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