Drowning - Accident, Suicide or Murder?

Drowning is one cause of death that can be difficult for a M.E. (Medical Examiner) to conclude.  To determine drowning as the cause of death, other factors have to be ruled out first.

Drowning in its basic form is asphyxiation – basically the inability to breathe.  When we think of drowning, normally we associate that with water, but that’s not the only thing we can drown in.  We can drown in basically any form of liquid (even our own vomit).

There are 2 types of drowning – dry and wet.

Maybe you’re wondering how a drowning can be dry?  But, the dry part refers to water getting into the lungs.  In cases of a dry drowning, the larynx spasms shut, making it impossible to derive oxygen, or exhale carbon dioxide.  Dry drowning is more likely in salt water, than fresh.

So how does an M.E. determine a drowning has happened?

You might answer water in the lungs.  However, bodies that have been in the water a long time will have water in their lungs even if the person didn’t drown.  Also certain drug overdoses, and heart conditions can cause water-filled lungs.  With a dry drowning, there won’t be water in the lungs.  For these reasons, a M.E. will request a toxicology analysis.

If the person was conscious when they entered the water there will evidence of hamorrhaging in the sinus and airways.  There will also be evidence of debris pulled in from the water in the sinuses, and lungs.

Another method, although debated, is the examination of the bone marrow for diatoms.  Diatoms are microorganisms that are in most water sources, and if the lungs and heart are pumping, these are pulled through the blood stream, and settle in the bone marrow.  This is a controversial means of determining drowning, however, because it has been argued that samples can be contaminated or unreliable because diatoms are also found in soil and the air, and some water doesn’t have diatoms.

When a person drowns, they inhale things such as plant matter, dirt, gravel, and microscopic organisms.  The M.E. can employ the services of a botanist, or forensic chemist, to determine where the person entered the water.

The M.E. may rely more on the circumstances of the death than autopsy findings.

This is the most common cause of drowning.

Suicide by drowning accounts for less than 2% of all reported suicides in the United States.

The reason for this is likely the natural tendency to surface for air.  It involves physical and mental anguish.  Some who chose this method use a heavy object to make it impossible to rise for air.

Drowning someone has been defined as “the perfect murder”, but is it impossible to prove?  No.  There are a few areas the investigators can turn to for answers.  If the location where the body went into the water shows signs of a struggle, or the body has markings to indicate an altercation, this lets investigators know they can pursue the drowning as a murder.

So, this is what I picked up from my research.  I hope you found it informative and useful.
For more information on who is likely to drown, when and where - click here.


  1. Good research, Carolyn. I could feel my stress level rising, just reading this. But those are the details you need to have if it's part of your story.

  2. Note to self: Whenever I need really good research on a topic for a book, contact Carolyn. This blog post is so full of good info that I think I'm going to have to drown someone in my next book, just to use my new knowledge!

  3. So my 59 year old healthy cousin Margaret was found drowned in her bathtub 8/2/11. Just that day her (grifter) husband Kelly Dumond had told her he was leaving to move in with his married girlfriend Laurie Hornbeck. The preliminary autopsy ruled death by drowning. Kelly is telling anyone who will listen that she was a pill popper (not true) and that she must have taken to many and drowned in the tub. I think he just may get away with the "Perfect" murder.

    1. I lost my daughter in the same manner, and still fighting for an indictment. We should talk. Please contact me.

    2. I lost my grandad in december with the same thing, even though he was 71 he was fit as a fiddle, was healthy and was very active and only looked in his 50's. All they said was he drowned in the bath but me and everyone else feel there's more to it. Is there any way we could get more answers or do we just need to let it go?


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