Sunday, July 5, 2009

McNair-Kazemi deaths not yet ruled murder suicide

By Donald Sensing

Updates added through the day at the end of the post.

Update July 8: police have ruled that Kazemi killed McNair and then turned the gun on herself. No one else was involved. Details here.


A press conference was held this afternoon by Metro Nashville police, who gave some of the details of the autopsies done on the remains of retired NFL quarterback Steve McNair and his presumed girlfriend, Saleh Kazemi.

McNair's body and that of 20-year-old Saleh Kazemi were found in a Nashville condominium yesterday afternoon by resident Wayne Neely, a friend of McNair. All those details are here.

Police have officially termed McNair was a homicide victim. He was shot four times, twice in the chest and twice in the head. Kazemi suffered one gunshot to the side of her head.

McNair was found seated in a couch in the living room. Kazemi was lying dead on the floor near him. A semiauto pistol was found underneath her body. Evidence collected at the scene (and presumably from the autopsies) is consistent with the gun recovered. BATF is tracing ownership of the pistol.

Both died early Saturday; they were discovered at about 1:30 that afternoon.

Police have not characterized Kazemi's death as suicide or anything else and do not expect to do so for several days.

There was no sign of forced entry into the apartment. Wayne neely, who was leasing the apartment, found the bodies after he let himself in.

Let's consider all this forensically. I was a principal staff officer for US Army Criminal Investigation Command ("CID," the Army's internal FBI) and can speak with some authority on these facts.

Let's consider McNair's autopsy first. There were four wounds. The pathologist can determine which one was the fatal shot. In fact, he probably suffered two or more shots that were each fatal in themselves, perhaps all four, but only one actually killed him (you can't get "more killed" once the first fatal shot is suffered). Almost without exception, fatal gunshot wounds are incapacitating immediately. So the notion that McNair shot himself twice through the chest and then twice in the head is not tenable even to the most obtuse observer.

So on that alone suicide can be ruled out. But that's not all an autopsy can reveal. Gunshots always leave residue on victims' clothing and skin, residue of smoke and unburned propellant that adheres as particulate matter. Also the propellant gases burn the skin around the entrance wound.

Unless, of course, the gun is fired from several feet or more away. This distance depends on caliber and load. And this is critical to both McNair and Kazemi. If McNair's clothing and skin has very little or no such residue or burns, it's as close to conclusive as can be that he was not holding the gun that shot him. Even his long arms could not have held a pistol far enough away to escape those muzzle effects.

As for Kazemi, the presence of muzzle effects supports, but does not prove, that she shot herself. Absent them, suicide would be very difficult to support. But even with them, all it shows is that she was shot at close range. But it might have been another's hand that pulled the trigger.

I presume investigators will also determine whether there is an actual ballistic match between the pistol found at the scene and the wounds and the bullets recovered from the bodies. They will try to determine whether the pistol and the bullets match ballistically - was it that particular pistol that fired the bullets that killed the two victims? Do firing pins marks on fired casings at the scene match those of the found pistol?

My guess is that police will not characterize Kazemi's death until they have answered those kinds of questions.

So here is the chain of possible outcomes, which investigators will try to support on the one hand and eliminate on the other:

1. McNair was murdered by Kazemi, who then turned the gun to her own head and pulled the trigger. Murder-suicide, open and shut, which would require:

  • The gun found at the scene matches the wound evaluations and ballistic evidence.
  • There is no evidence of a third party at the scene at time of the shootings (for example, shoe imprints in the carpet on top of McNair's imprints or Kazemi's, and that don't match Neely's shoes or an officer's, and no fingerprints on top of Kazemi's on the pistol).
2. Kazemi used the gun found at the scene to kill McNair, but she was then murdered by a third party with a different gun who, obviously, fled. This would be supported by:
  • Wound ballistics that show the gun was fired too far away from Kazemi for her to have held it
  • Different firearms used to kill McNair and Kazemi.

3. Both McNair and Kazemi were murdered by a third party, supported by:

  • Wound ballistics that show the gun was fired too far away from Kazemi for her to have held it
  • The gun found at the scene was not used to shoot either McNair or Kazemi.

Police have not ruled out any of these three scenarios. Police said this afternoon that they are interviewing friends and acquaintances of both McNair and Kazemi. The term of art for this is "psychological autopsy," an unfortunate phrasing that implies a scientific accuracy that simply isn't there.

Update, 3:30 p.m: Police say that Kazemi's autopsy did not show that she was pregnant. The Tennessean reports,

"While it is clear McNair’s death is a homicide, the police department is not classifying Kazemi’s death, pending further investigation and interviews with persons who knew her and McNair,” police spokesman Don Aaron said at press conference this afternoon.

"We can’t be close-minded,” Aaron said. “All scenarios are on the table."
The thought also occurs to me that, according to Neely, the door to the apartment was locked when he arrived. Being the renter, he had a key to get in. But if a third party was involved, how did he lock the door when he left?

4:40 p.m.: The unedited video of today's police news conference is here.

6:30 p.m.: Kazemi's erstwhile boyfriend, Keith Norfleet, says that he and Kazemi broke up about five months ago (which was about the time McNair appeared on their scene). He also told police that Kazemi had banged on his door early Saturday morning, but that she had left by the time he got to the door. Norfleet said Kazemi had told him not long before that she and McNair were going to break up. He said he spent the day trying to find Kazemi, especially after he heard the reports that McNair and an unnamed woman were found dead.

I would imagine that investigators have asked Norfleet to give a detailed account of where he went and when on Saturday and whom he talked to so that they can try to establish a timeline and interview those people.

Police said that McNair and Kazemi had been dead since "early Saturday" though not discovered until early that afternoon. Establishing times of death is not precise; pathologists can only give a window of time within which they died. The question is begged, though, whether that window includes the time that Norfleet says Kazemi was pounding on his door.

A commenter on one of the Tennessean's articles earlier today seemed to think it was forensically significant that Norfleet's Myspace page is headlined, "never let anyone or anything come in between you and the one you love because when you do you lose everything" and that the first song on his playlist there is, "I Want You Back," by the Jackson Five.

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