Is It Even Reasonable To Consider Elliott Smith’s Death A Suicide?

Written by | March 14, 2019 2:40 am | 26 responses


Elliott Smith


On October 21st, 2003, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith died in the Echo Park house he was sharing with his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba. Elliott, an acclaimed singer-songwriter, had released 5 full-length albums but he was mostly known for his contribution to the soundtrack of the Gus Van Sant movie, ‘Good Will Hunting’ and his song ‘’Miss Misery’ for which he was nominated for an Oscar in 1997.

After a 911 call placed by Chiba at 12:18, Elliott was transported to the hospital where he was admitted at 13:10 with two stab wounds to the chest, but despite medical intervention to repair the heart lacerations, he was pronounced dead at 13:36. The immediate cause of death was stated as ‘exsanguination’ (massive blood loss).

The press and media outlets announced that Elliott died of an apparent suicide, based on the narrative of Jennifer Chiba, who stated to the police that Elliott had suffered from depression all of his life, had a history of alcohol abuse and multiple narcotics addiction (including heroin and crack). According to the police report, she also mentioned a previous suicide attempt, as well as a consistent history of verbal suicidal ideations.

Let’s go back to October 21, 2003, a very hot day with temperatures in the 90s and winds so dry there were high risks of wildfires in the following days. Around noon, Elliott Smith allegedly stabbed himself in the chest, twice, following a well-documented fight with his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba (she admitted this part to the police and neighbors confirmed it).

Based on the results of the autopsy report, the manner of death ‘could not be determined,’ leaving the real cause of death quite mysterious.

But can people actually stab themselves in the chest,.. twice?

There is quite abundant forensic literature on the subject of stabbing, but, just to be clear, most stabbing deaths are homicides: according to a study which considered 700 cutting and stabbing fatalities (and keep in mind that this also includes death by cutting not stabbing) 80% were due to homicide, and only 18% to suicide, while the rest, 2 %, was due to accident.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a knife is the second weapon used after a firearm for murder cases: 16.5% of all murders are caused by knives versus 64% by firearm. But when people murder their boyfriend or girlfriend, the statistics are even more revealing as 32.8% of offenders used a knife to murder their partner, while 47.2% used a firearm. These are just statistics but a knife is definitively a common weapon used during domestic violence. In a recent article in the SF Weekly, emergency domestic violence calls involving a gun went up 53% and calls involving a knife increased 87% last year. Let’s keep in mind that knives are commonly used in case of domestic violence and Elliott and his girlfriend had been fighting that day, she admitted it to the police and neighbors heard them scream for hours.

If we examine the possibility of suicide by stabbing, there are a few points to consider:

– Suicides by stabbing do exist but they are very rare:  According to many studies, suicide by sharp force injuries account for less than 2% of all suicides, so the choice of a knife or any other sharp instrument to commit suicide is unusual. Furthermore, many studies say that the most common sites for self-inflicted incised wounds are the neck and the abdomen, not the chest. So there are actually far less than 2% of people who commit suicide by stabbing themselves in the chest. Plus, the thorax is the most targeted region for homicide victims whereas suicides by cutting mostly target the upper limbs, the neck, or the wrists.

– The time of the day: This happened in the middle of the day, whereas studies reveal that most of the self-inflicted stabbings (69%) occurred at night or in the early hours of the morning, and very few self-stabbings are actually witnessed by someone else. It is obviously a very dramatic scene to witness which could have traumatized Elliott’s girlfriend for life or made her look guilty. Did Elliott want to do that to her?

– Sternum and ribs injuries: According to a large study including 118 sharp force fatalities, there is a much higher likelihood of a homicide if bone or cartilage wounds are found (they were found in 74.3% of the cases) and a higher likelihood of suicide if these wounds are absent (they were only found in 14.6% of the cases). Suicide victims tend to avoid solid anatomical structures, such as ribs and sternum whereas the frequency of bone or cartilage wounds in homicides is high because assailants ignore the presence of bones. In Elliott’s case, stab wound #1 injured intercostal space, and stab wound #2 ‘perforated the left edge of the sternum’. Elliott’s perforated sternum speaks volumes.

– The depth of the wounds: Wounds caused by assailants to their victims are generally more severe than those self-inflicted. On the autopsy report, the estimated depth of penetration of Elliott’s wound #2 is between 5 and 7 inches (12.7 -17.8 cm), and this depth is quite severe.

– The clothes: Elliott was stabbed with his clothes on, and this is once again very significant, as studies show that clothing damage is relatively rare in case of suicide (between 4% to 39% depending on the studies) whereas the stabbing is made through clothing in most homicides. In the case of suicides, the person generally exposes the chosen area before the stabbing and there is no clothing damage.

– The lack of hesitation wounds: When people stab themselves, hesitation wounds (superficial incised wounds) are often made before the fatal deep wound. They indicate indecision before the final act. Elliott didn’t have any hesitation wounds around the large stab wounds in his chest and his neck and wrists were intact. According to many studies, hesitation marks are a strong indicator of suicide, they are present in most cases of suicides (>70%) and are even believed to be the most useful indication in distinguishing suicide from homicide.

– The possible defense wounds: Elliott had small cuts on his left palm and right upper arm, which could be interpreted as possible defense wounds. They were very small, but according to the doctor who did the autopsy, they could have also been done when mishandling the knife. However, she said that they were certainly not due to intentional self-harm. Since Elliott was right-handed, the cut on his right arm is weird. Obviously, defense wounds are a strong indication of homicide and were detected in 61% of the cases in a large study. They are most frequently found on hands, arms, and forearms.


To sum this up with the strongest points:

Suicide by stabbing only represents 2% of all suicides

Bone injuries are only found in 14.6% of the cases

Clothing damage is only found in 39% of the cases at the most

The absence of hesitation marks represents less than 30% of the cases


if we consider that all these statistics are independent (they independently occur in many studies) we have to recognize that they nevertheless characterize Elliott’s case altogether. For what it’s worth, we can do this simple calculation:

0.02 x 0.146 x 0.39 x 0.30 = 0.0003, so 0.03 %… Elliott’s case would represent this astronomically low statistic  (0.03%)… is it even possible?


26 Responses to “Is It Even Reasonable To Consider Elliott Smith’s Death A Suicide?”

  1. Jeff Weedman

    Who was surprised when Elliott died?
    He was in quite the downward spiral in the months before his death. I went to a few of his shows during this time – he looked horrible with sweaty hair plastered against his face, and had trouble getting through his sets.
    Chiba was with him during this time, so perhaps it’s not a stretch to think that theirs was a mutually self- destructive relationship. Chances are they had other violent interactions. Maybe this is the first one where knives came to play…
    I’m inclined to believe Chiba stabbed him – but I’m not sure I’d call it murder.

    • Alyson

      Two things: Elliott had cleaned up before he died, I don’t know when you saw him but I saw him for the last time in August 2003 and he looked great. He went to rehab in late 2002 and was seeing the end of the tunnel. According to a few rumors I heard, this was not the first time knives came to play.
      Then I don’t know what you are talking about, but if she stabbed him, if she was the one holding the knife, it’s a murder.

  2. KK

    Exsanguination? He bled out. Seems to indicate she waited (and also made things worse by removing the knife). I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before: The force it would take to deliver a 5-7 inch stab wound? How could he have been standing? I wonder if the police are concerned about this particular bit. Also, with regard to contact with the bone, think about the force she needed to remove the knife- chilling. Was her memory in reverse?!

  3. cookaroo

    He would have probably placed the knife against his chest and use the wall or counter to force the knife in. This would also account for the bone damage as there would be control issues with this implementation. Just saying, without knowing exact circumstances…..speculation is just that.

    • Alyson

      But this would have left marks/traces. When I talked to her, Dr. Scheinin (who did the autopsy) mentioned a case like this, a man who had used a door/wall to stab himself. I asked her if she thought that could be the case here and she said no. The police also came and collected evidence but there was no such physical evidence in the room, and they have never said such a thing could have happened.

  4. dpk

    Listening to his music (which I love) makes the idea of a suicide not at all out of the question. Also, the statistics pointed out here are flawed. While it seems logical to multiply all those factors together the only one that really matters is the 2% one.

    As far as the depth of the stab wound that is incredible, even for a murder. Still, not at all out of the question that it was a suicide. Again, as evidenced by much of his music he seemed to have very serious issues with depression. I would bring up his prior drug history but from what I remember he had only therapeutic levels of prescription psych meds in his system so he didn’t do it because/while he was high, but the problems associated with heavy drug use do not magically disappear because someone gets sober. Indeed, all the reasons someone starting getting high are usually still there and many made worse. There’s still a lot of work to do once sober.

    Also, it’s very common for depressed individuals to appear happier preceding a suicide. I’ve heard it reasoned it because they have made a decision to commit the act which gives a certain sense of relief in knowing that it will all be over soon.

    I can state from my own experience that the chemical abuse and depression (particularly when combined) it can be hard to find the will to live. Especially when there’s a part of your brain telling you that everyone would be better off if you were gone because you have become a problem. Which is why people calling suicide a “selfish” act drives me up a fucking wall. Obviously those individuals have no clue what the hell they are talking about.

    Anyways, I can see it either way. A “passion killing” in the heat of an argument or a suicide by a talented musician with a history of mental illness dating back to childhood. To me, the point isn’t at all how he died, (other than the fact that a potential murderer is walking free). The important part is his legacy and the beautiful music he has left us with. To be honest I may very well owe my own life to him and his music, it definitely got me through some horrible times, I was comforted by simply feeling like someone else understood my pain.

    RIP Elliott

    • Alyson

      ‘the statistics pointed out here are flawed’ no, you can multiply them, it’s basic statistics, I know a bit about maths: if you know the probability of an event A and the probability of an event B, the probability that events A and B happen together is prob (A) x prob (B),… again basic statistics!
      if there are flaws in this calculation, they are in the approximation of the numbers I have used, they vary from one study to the next, but the variations are not too great, so this calculation points out the rarity of all these events occuring at the same time (suicide by stabbing + no hesitation marks + stabbing through the clothes + bone injuries…)

      According to what I have read, and I have read many forensic studies about stabbing, the depth of the wound is not incredible for murder, or even for suicide, it is just incredible if the 6-inch deep wound was the second wound and if it was suicide.

      Again I have addressed many times his depression and his lyrics, this is irrelevant in this study as this form of suicide (with all the details already mentioned) is extremely rare. I also don’t buy the autobiographical lyrics, most people who write sad songs don’t kill themselves… art is not a path to kill yourselves, it’s a way to survive.

      Plus it’s safe to say that, if Elliott had committed suicide, he would not have picked this very painful way to go, in front of his girlfriend, at the risk to traumatize her for life and make her look like a suspect? in this case, it would not be a ‘selfish’ suicide but a very heinous act.

      • cpt

        I can believe I’m posting on sun a mundane topic after watching Heaven Adores You. On the stats – multiplying probabilities assumes the events are independent. It’s not a big deal how likely or unlikely suicide was or isn’t. He is dead and there’s not enough evidence for changes to be filed. And either way the way we’ve lost his voice and music.

        • Alyson

          Yes, of course, multiplying probabilities assumes the events are independent, and all these features are independently reviewed in many forensic articles. Not all people who do not remove their clothes lack hesitation marks for example,… and you cannot assume to find one feature if you find another one, so they are independent. I have talked to several forensic experts.
          You are missing my point, the presence of all these features at the SAME TIME for a case of suicide by stabbing is HIGHLY unusual.
          As for your last argument, ‘He is dead and there’s not enough evidence for changes to be filed’ …what changes are you talking about? The case is open, the autopsy not conclusive, so the case was not filed as suicide.

        • Alyson

          And I can’t believe you are calling this topic ‘mundane.’ Knowing what happened to him matters to a lot of people, have you thought about his family?

  5. None

    After reading this I have no doubt in my mid that he was murdered,and his murdered has gotten off scott free. I hope it eats away at them for the rest of their life.

  6. Anon

    I think it’s very suspicious. She pulled the knife out (which would conveniently explain her prints on the knife) and happened to be taking a shower while he was busy stabbing himself (twice) – convenient to remove blood or explain the delay in getting help.

    • Alyson

      We don’t know if she took a shower, I know it has been reported but it’s not in the police report!

  7. Colin Robinson

    I just read the Wikipedia on this the other day. Sure sounds to me like she killed him. It was probably a low priority to the police. Even though he was famous he was probably “just another junkie” to them.

  8. Colin Robinson

    I just learned about all this for the first time today. It sounds like murder to me. Did anyone compare the handwriting on the post-it note to Elliott’s and Jennifer’s?

    • Alyson

      unfortunately, we know nothing about what was done with the post-it note.
      Since the case is open, the police cannot comment on anything. I know that even the family tried!

  9. Jud

    Elliott’s neighbor at his studio New Monkey was / is an artist. Her testimony here on this site is both convincing and chilling. Especially when she starts describing the “Dark force” in Elliott’s life. Please take those words “Dark Force” with an open mind and not with supernatural connection. Sounds like to me she just didn’t want to rat out or condemn Chiba, since the neighbor didn’t have all the facts on the day of Elliott’s death.
    IMO: Elliott Smith was murdered by a psychotic girlfriend with a history of violent relationships. Rest In Peace, E.S.

    • J

      Is or was it proven ES was murdered by his GF? I was a late comer to his beautiful music and was distraught to learn of such a loss to musical artistry posthumously

      • Alyson

        No, it is not proven, but the case is still open and the autopsy was not conclusive. That’s why I am trying to find out what happened.

  10. mick

    He probably wanted to stab his own heart for a long time. You think Chiba’s aim was that good? I’m guessing the first stab was in the heat of the moment and it felt incredible, free and final, so he did it again with more vigor. He spent so much time ruminating on it, once he finally decided there wouldn’t be hesitation wounds. We’d all prefer conspiracies that don’t leave us with unanswerable questions but everyone dies, mostly in pointless and unfair ways, and if you choose to go early, fine. Leave the woman alone.

    • Alyson

      That’s complete nonsense. Keep your wild imagination for yourself, this shows you know about nothing about the case. Chiba said she was only 5-10 minutes in the bathroom for your info. She is at the very least responsible for removing the knife and letting him bleed to death.

  11. Thee Optimist

    This is very interesting. I’ve been listening to Either/Or around and around again over the past few days. I knew that he had died of possibly self-inflicted stab wounds, and I knew he had been a drug addict, and I knew his girlfriend at the time had “witnessed” all this. But that was all I knew. I figured they were a couple of junkies and weird shit happens around junkies. Then I read the Wikipedia page tonight, which certainly makes it seem like a) he was getting better; and b) she killed him. So I typed “Did Jennifer Chiba kill Elliott Smith?” into the Googler, and this article appeared.

    How about this little bit of speculation? He was getting better, and maybe she didn’t like that? Maybe he was thinking of moving on entirely? “Got a new wife, got a new life, and the family’s fine.” Maybe she decided that he wasn’t allowed to move on, and he had to stay inside their circle of insanity forever and ever? Or maybe not. Maybe he plunged a knife deep into his own chest. Heat of the moment kind of thing.

    In old photos of their relationship, she looks fine. He looks like he’s already dead. Or to put it another way, she looks warm and dry, and he looks like he’s been sitting out in a cold rain. For weeks.

    • Alyson

      I know the photos you are referring to, it was during one of his last shows (outdoor) on the east coast and it effectively rained quite a lot… which explains Elliott’s appearance. I can assure you he was doing well just before he died, I last saw him in August 2003, and he looked good. I have pictures of that show.
      You are not speculating in vain: after his death, she told someone that Elliott wanted to leave her, and I tend to believe this was the subject of their argument on October 21st, 2003. As I said in the article, it would require an impressive force to plunge the knife in the chest, through the thoracic cage, not once but twice. Plus his damaged sternum does not point to suicide.


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