The 'how' in homicides from the distant past
On the night of July 14, 2001, Ronald Deshell Steele was shot three times.
Two weeks ago, one of those bullets finally killed him.
One bullet went through his left forearm. Another went into his left shoulder, and the third — and ultimately fatal — round pierced the left side of his chest, according to the police report.
Steele, 51, died of a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm and atherosclerosis due to hypertension, said Amy Elliott, spokeswoman for the state medical examiner's office. His death was ruled a homicide, she said.
But the man who reportedly shot Steele will not face a murder charge, as the shooting with intent to kill count was dismissed in 2003 in exchange for a plea agreement in other cases, Oklahoma City police Sgt. Gary Knight said.
Steele's death is not the only Oklahoma City homicide this year that occurred more than a decade after a bullet found a victim.
Isjanna McKay James, 10, died April 29. She was 8 months old when she was shot in the head during an apparent drive-by shooting in February 2007. James was asleep in the front room of a house in the 4200 block of NE 16 when the bullet pierced her skull. A decade later, that wound was responsible for her death.
Isjanna's shooter — and now killer — has never been found.
Determining the cause and manner of death in retrospect comes down to a totality of the circumstances, said Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic scientist and physician.
"The critical interpretation or evaluation is: Would he still be alive today if that happened 16 years ago?" Baden said. "Usually, it would not be the arm or an extremity, it would be some damage to his heart or lungs from the gunshot wound to the chest that festered and, after many years, didn't heal and caused him to die."
Baden is the former chief medical examiner of New York City. He chaired the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations that investigated the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and was the host of the popular Autopsy documentary series on HBO.
"In all deaths, the autopsy findings have to be interpreted in the light of the circumstances. If you find somebody on the sidewalk with a skull fracture, you can find out at autopsy that he died of skull fracture or brain injuries. But whether it's accidental — struck by a car — or whether it's suicide — he jumped out of a building — or whether it's a homicide — he was thrown off the roof — that all depends on the circumstances of the history," he said.
"If they find a bullet in the lung with an abscess around it, for example, then they would know it was some kind of gunshot wound. But if they just found him with an abscess in the lungs that caused death, then they couldn't determine what happened," Baden said.
Recent wounds will obviously be the easiest to deduce unless some sort of evidence from an earlier assault — such as the tip of a knife blade — was left behind, he said.
Once the medical examiner has determined the cause of death is a homicide, then it lands on detectives to prove it.
"If you're looking back at 16, 20 years ago, you hope that everybody that was involved in the incident is still alive, is still available for comment and would still be available to testify," said Oklahoma City police Capt. Bo Mathews, the former supervisor of the department's homicide unit.
Mathews said technology and evidence-gathering techniques have evolved so rapidly that a case built 15 years ago won't look as polished.
Police keep evidence gathered in assault cases 20 or 30 years, but evidence in homicide investigations is held indefinitely, he said.
"Most of the times those investigations will stand on what the first investigation said unless somebody comes forth with new evidence," he said. "It's basically going to be the initial investigation that goes to court."