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

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?

33 Comments

  1. Jeff Weedman on March 14, 2019 at 4:05 pm

    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 on March 14, 2019 at 8:03 pm

      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 on March 14, 2019 at 10:47 pm

    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 on October 9, 2019 at 6:38 pm

    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 on October 10, 2019 at 1:36 pm

      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 on November 28, 2019 at 2:16 pm

    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 on November 29, 2019 at 12:52 pm

      ‘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! https://www.statisticshowto.datasciencecentral.com/multiplication-rule-probability/
      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 on December 15, 2020 at 12:10 am

        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 on December 15, 2020 at 12:25 am

          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 on December 15, 2020 at 10:26 am

          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?

    • Yo momma on April 24, 2021 at 4:57 am

      What a stupid fucking thing to say. Suicide is selfish in every sense.

      • Csonga on May 4, 2021 at 10:50 pm

        suicide isn’t selfish. not at all, a person is in so much pain that they see everyday like this one… this moment.. that will never end. And rather than suffer through it they chose the alternative.

        • zigzag on May 9, 2021 at 5:56 am

          How is that not selfish?? Inflicting that pain on other people instead of holding it yourself. That’s the example of selfish. You die and get to leave all of your problems. Everyone else left here has to continue holding that pain. Eff off with its not selfish. It’s literally the most self serving thing anyone could do that additionally hurts absolutely everyone around them.

        • EMurph on August 24, 2021 at 10:54 am

          There is usually a history of emotional abuse of threats to ones own life before a suicide that by themselves are evidence of how selfish it is. I’ve noticed it’s mostly ppl who’ve never had someone close to them kill themself that think it’s not selfish. They don’t know the extremely painful guilt that every person whom survives them feels. Or the anger & frustration that comes with mourning someone who is only to blame for them being gone. When Hunter Thompson died Rolling Stone published a cover to cover book basically of famous people writing about Hunter. Most said “he went out Gonzo” except Jack Nicholson. He was perfect, “I’m mad that you are the reason I will never see you knocking on my window at 3 am. How dare you take you away from me!” I’m paraphrasing but his article was the most honest.
          Suicide is the most selfish thing a person will ever do. Someone has to find them, clean up the mess. It’s hard enough when someone is killed by a drunk driver or cancer, but when you’re just as hurt by the person whom is also gone it multiplies the agony.
          Nobody said life was easy, why do they get to cut class early?

      • Larren on August 23, 2021 at 9:28 am

        I have depression, I’m 4 years into recovery from heroin addiction and it’s hard to ever be completely well after such disruption to your mind. Even if Elliot was clean he still could have killed him self. I was reading about the lack of hesitation wounds and had a overwhelming emotional thought about his music being his hesitation wounds. Regardless of his death he has served as a comforting voice to people like us. I only wish and wonder who/if he was Comforted by?

  5. dpk on November 28, 2019 at 2:19 pm

    Also, this is a great song by Ben Folds about Elliott Smith.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eynNJufKK2Q

    • Angela Rorrer on March 21, 2021 at 9:29 pm

      It is not. It is an ode to adolescence written for his son released a year before Smith died.

      • You Wrong on September 9, 2021 at 5:03 pm

        “Elliott, man, you played a fine guitar
        And some dirty basketball
        The songs you wrote
        Got me through a lot
        Just wanna tell you that”

        You…you don’t think that’s directed at ES?

  6. None on January 15, 2020 at 4:49 am

    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.

  7. Anon on February 2, 2020 at 7:06 pm

    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 on February 3, 2020 at 10:40 am

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

  8. Georges Economou on June 6, 2020 at 8:39 pm

    We will never know with 100% certainty unless a confession comes our way, but if i had to guess i ]d say he was murdered.

  9. Colin Robinson on July 26, 2020 at 9:12 am

    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.

  10. Colin Robinson on July 26, 2020 at 9:53 am

    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 on July 26, 2020 at 1:36 pm

      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!

  11. Jud on October 30, 2020 at 12:17 am

    https://justiceforelliottsmithcom.wordpress.com/a-neighbors-testimony/

    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 on March 20, 2021 at 9:00 pm

      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 on March 21, 2021 at 12:05 pm

        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.

  12. mick on March 22, 2021 at 12:58 am

    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 on March 22, 2021 at 4:20 pm

      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.

  13. Thee Optimist on April 7, 2021 at 1:00 am

    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 on April 9, 2021 at 3:43 pm

      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.

      • K on May 3, 2021 at 3:49 am

        Alyson, thank you for giving this reasonable and worthy cause momentum.
        I’ve worked in the medical imaging field for over 15 years and have seen all sorts of
        intentional traumatic injuries. Nothing in the description that has taken Elliott Smith from us makes any sense. The force to cause coastal and sternal damage as described would have to be extreme. To me the physics of this description isn’t possible. Our thoracic skeleton has evolved in such a way as to protect us. Try taking two fingers and taping on your sternum… It’s not a weak or small structure. This sounds like injuries inflicted by someone else. Hopefully the truth will come out.

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