What if it wasn’t really suicide?

New research shows police officers can be fooled by phony notes


On Dec. 9, 2001, the day Dr. John Connelly and his wife, Gloria, learned their son had died, they were immediately suspicious about what had happened. Police told the Ottawa couple the 22-year-old—a popular, athletic and high-achieving pharmacy student at the University of Toronto with everything to live for—had jumped to his death. Over the phone, an officer read out what he said was a suicide note: “Best of luck in the future,” was scrawled in ink at the top of a piece of white paper. The initials of their son, named after his father, were scribbled underneath. After that, all it said was, “To my family my love will always be with you!”

Connelly couldn’t believe it. “Best of luck?” he recalls saying to the officer. “That’s just a greeting. That’s a rough copy of something John’s writing.” His son often drafted messages on scraps of paper before transcribing them to cards for special occasions; the Connellys gathered examples for investigators. Another thing bothered the family about the note: its formality. “We all said that John would never write that,” explains Connelly, a dental surgeon. “He would never address us that way. He had a few nicknames for me.” The Connellys hired two document examiners to compare the note to messages indisputably authored by their son. Both of them questioned whether the word ‘to’ matched John’s handwriting. “So the question is,” says Connelly, “whose is the ‘to’?”

More than eight years have passed since John’s body was discovered in the parking lot of his Toronto apartment building, and his family is still being told that he killed himself. Just two weeks ago, the Connellys, who have repeatedly requested an inquest and that the manner of death be changed, received a report from Ontario chief coroner Dr. Andrew McCallum stating, among other things: “This note written by your son was a genuine suicide note.” The phrase “Best of luck in the future,” he insisted, “seems to me to be valedictory in nature and in keeping with a farewell note.”

John’s parents, however, are still convinced that his death was at someone else’s hand. “You’d have to do an investigation,” says Connelly, “but with the record of evidence, certainly it would appear that way.”

To some, this might seem a case of grieving parents unable to accept that their beloved son would take his own life. However, John’s startlingly brief and impersonal note raises significant questions. In fact, there is mounting evidence that when it comes to verifying a suicide, investigators don’t always get it right. Groundbreaking research by Canadian experts is illuminating the process by which individuals, and police officers in particular, determine whether a suicide note is real.

One study examining how decisions are made, conducted by a researcher at Memorial University in St. John’s, revealed that police officers are only correct about the authenticity of suicide notes 50 per cent of the time—as good as flipping a coin. “You get 50 per cent through chance,” says Brent Snook, the psychology professor who authored the study in which police officers were asked to judge 30 suicide notes, some of which were phony. “If they had just said, ‘yes, no, yes, no,’ you’d probably get the same results.” The officers, it appears, fixated on two surprising variables to conclude a note was fake: the use of cognitive process verbs such as “I think, feel, fear, believe” and the absence of an explanation for the suicide.

Another study, however, revealed that genuine suicide notes have two other variables in common: expressions of “positive affect” such as gratitude, love and terms of endearment, and short sentence length. But positive affect contradicts the stereotype most people have of suicidal individuals as depressed and detached. While some certainly are, that doesn’t necessarily inhibit them from feeling warmly about their loved ones. “If that’s the view a police officer has, they’re going to make the incorrect decision,” says Craig Bennell, author of the study, and a psychology professor and director of the police research lab at Carleton University in Ottawa. Short sentences are also a marker of authenticity because presumably suicidal people have “come to terms with what they’re going to do,” explains Bennell. “It’s not beyond the imagination to expect them to be able to say what they want in a much more succinct way, and without the flowery language and detailed explanations.”

Interestingly, in his latest report to the Connellys, coroner McCallum cites Bennell’s research to corroborate his assertion that John’s death was a suicide. Bennell, who says he was not involved with the decision or even aware of the case, is unsure the limited data published in his study—which used students, not cops—justify such a decision. Both he and Snook emphasize that their work is preliminary and full of shortcomings, including small numbers of study participants and suicide notes, some dating back more than 50 years, to review.

The researchers are confident, however, that even just a few reliable cues in a note can be effective indicators of suicide. “In the criminal justice system there is this expectation that everyone—judges, lawyers, police officers—ought never to make a decision until every bit of information has been examined and turned over, quantified and integrated,” says Snook. “This is unrealistic. Our minds are not supercomputers.” The quality of the information, it appears, is more important than the quantity.

If the Connellys’ suspicions of foul play are correct, it won’t be the first time investigators have been wrong about a suicide note, which studies show accompany about one in three or four suicides. In 2008, Newfoundlander Bruce Leyte was found alive in Ontario, having faked his own suicide two years earlier to escape money woes; a convincing note was left inside his abandoned truck. A British nurse discovered hanging in her garage in 2007 was actually killed by her jealous husband, a cop who typed the “suicide note” wearing rubber gloves.

John Connelly is gone, but for his parents there is no peace. This week, they will meet Bennell for the first time to discuss the note at the centre of this tragedy. Their fight to find out how their son died is what makes Snook and Bennell’s research vital. “The worry, of course, is miscarriages of justice,” points out Bennell. “In the worst-case scenario, guilty people will go free if we don’t have the ability to identify if a note is genuine or fake. Some people will get away, and other people will get penalized in a way that they shouldn’t.”

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What if it wasn’t really suicide?

  1. I find that it's rather remarkable that the police and coroners would make the presumption that suicidal people naturally are all in the same place psychologically.

    Suicide is the ultimate conscious act over the subconscious. It is natural for the human mind to concentrate on survival. Survival in the current moment, in the future, and beyond one's own existence. Any act who's motive is contrary to this is a sign of dysfunction, a physical dysfunction which causes the subconscious to act in a damaging manner or a mental dysfunction causing the conscious to act in a damaging manner. The subconscious however has no desire to write and leave messages.

    This is a conscious desire and thus in order for one to commit suicide one must have a mental dysfunction great enough to overcome the greatest motivating force in history. A dysfunction of such power not only is strong enough that we cannot effectively predict the side effects using a few clues or markers, but is inherently dependent on the behavioral patterns of the person who has killed themselves. The person must have convinced themselves to do the act which requires melding the act to what is perceived as a normal, acceptable act .

    To be honest, the police should look into the death. They should have looked further into it when it first occurred. And remember, when someone jokingly says their going to kill themselves over and over again, they'll eventually do it.

  2. Chief Coroner Unfit
    In 2009 the Goudge Inquiry reported that oversight at the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario was absent. For those families who need the services of a coroner in Ontario the situation is intolerable yet the McGuinty government has refused to act on the Goudge recommendations for oversight. Cathy Gulli's article of 7 June 2010 highlighted the need for oversight. As she noted, Chief Coroner McCallum concluded in a public ruling that a common greeting "Best of luck in the future." was somehow a "genuine" suicide message.
    Just as troubling is that in the same ruling; Chief Coroner McCallum misrepresented a research article (by Bennell and Jones 2007) to justify his opinion. In a letter dated 26 May 2010, Professor Bennell repudiates Dr. McCallum's conclusion:
    "With all due respect to Dr. McCallum…I was concerned with a variety of things that were stated…about our research and how it was used (or misused) in this case". The letter goes on to say, "It is unclear to me (Bennell) how our published paper could be used to reach a conclusion that John's note was in fact a genuine suicide note."
    On just these grounds alone…and there are many others…Dr. McCallum should have been subject to an independent review of his professional competence and fitness for office. When Chief Coroners ignore the forensic record of evidence and supplant their own unsubstantiated opinions, the families of the deceased should have some recourse. Unfortunately thanks to the McGuinty government's inaction that may not happen. Ontarians should be aware that the independent Oversight Council and the Complaints Committee promised by this government when amendments to the Coroner's Act were passed in 2009 have, inexplicably, still not been proclaimed in force. As citizens we deserve accountability from the Coroner's Office.

  3. The article states the "to" on the note was forged. That makes the entire note suspect. You can't have a piece of evidence be mostly right; it has to be all right. If I add a few zeros to cheque I've been given, I can't cash it based on it being "mostly right", however correct the rest of it "seems to me". McCallum needs to address the fact that the handwriting was forged, especially since it indicates a third party involvement in the death.

  4. I do not understand how you can ignore the fact that two seperate document examiners have compared the handwriting that made up this so called "suicide note" to thousands of other samples of John, the victim's, handwriting and that BOTH of these document examiners questioned whether the word ‘To' matched John's handwriting. How does that not get looked at further? How does the coroner, the investigator, or anyone for that matter involved in this case, ignore the addition of the word "To"? Does this not indicates third party involvement in John's death? Do you not think to yourself, how did the "To" get there? If it doesn't match the victim's handwriting, then who wrote it? Why? Did everyone just happened to forget that there's a forgery in the note?

  5. I am very familiar with this case and I continue, after 8 1/2 years, to sit dumbfounded over more than just this one question about the forgery in the note, but over many questions that surround this case, questions that seem to have just been forgotten or swept aside. There is no doubt in my mind that someone is not doing their job and my question to them is WHY?

    Get informed – if you don't know much about this case or want to learn more about it check out the website http://www.aquestionoftrust.com/. Take the time to watch the video from CBC News: the fifth estate – A Knock on the Door. Reported Bob McKeown covered this story 4 years ago and brought up the question of the forged "To" in the note along with many of the other unanswered questions that make you question the level of investigation, or lack there of, on this case.

    Ask yourself… what would you want to see happen if John Connelly was your son, your father, your brother, your friend? Speak out, let's get answers!

  6. The note that the Chief Coroner of Ontario called a suicide note is only one piece of evidence surrounding the mysterious death of John Connelly.

    The CBC's Fifth Estate program – Jan 2006 – clearly outlined and documented numerous significant facts and circumstances that lead one to reject the cause of John's death as a suicide.

    For the Chief Coroner of Ontario to state that the note was definitely a suicide note and not a forgery was a rash judgment on his part. With so many evidential questions unexplored as revealed in the Fifth Estate Program, Coroner McCallum leaves himself open to criticism.

    The Coroner should welcome the expressed concerns of familes, be genuinely open in hearing their concerns and be prepared to make every effort to ascertain the true cause of death. That is his chief responsibility as a servant of the people of Ontario.

  7. Having become aware of this tragic case from across the Atlantic, it has come as something of a surprise and a huge disappointment that the institutions, and especially the Ontario coroner's office, charged with upholding justice in one of the most respected of our fellow Commonwealth countries, seem to have let their citizens down so badly.

    The repeated failures to properly review ALL of the evidence and the Chief Coroner's apparent selectivity in what he is prepared to look at, has resulted, it would appear, in a gross miscarriage of justice.

    One has to wonder if the situation would been different if John Connelly had been the son of a government minister or son of the chief coroner himself…………….

    It is time for the powers-that-be to seriously get their act together and properly investigate this case once and for all. It is the very least that John Connelly deserves.

  8. I'm reading this with interest from the UK. It seems incredible that in his position, the Chief Coroner of Ontario is apparently ignoring the forgery in this note and the implications of it, (which would surely merit further investigation, and of the whole case?) and worse, appears to be deliberately misinterpreting Bennell's research. What's going on??

  9. I think what I find most disturbing about all of this, is that the Chief Coroner of Ontario, a person responsible for public safety, could make such a grave error, and is in no way held accountable for it. Just think about it, a person with the power to decide when a death is murder, suicide or accident can be allowed to make such rash and arbitrary declarations on the circumstances surrounding said deaths. Where are the checks and balances in the system to ensure public safety? What is the province doing to correct such failings?

  10. The Connelly family have been attempting to get public officials within public institutions to discharge their public duties since the death of their son December 2001.

    The note described in the Macleans story is only one piece of evidence held by the Coroner's Office that unquestionably demonstrates that the evidentiary foundations relied upon by the police and the Coroner's Office for the suicide determination are inaccurate and unsustainable. The suicide determination was also made in complete violation of the police and coroner's offices own protocols which were put in place to avoid exactly the kind of errors that have occurred here.

    I make that observation as a former Crown Prosecutor, Executive Director of the Canadian Police Association and Special Counsel of the Ontario Office for Victims of Crime. Our Office examined the evidence in this case in 2004 and recommended that it be reinvestigated by the Toronto Police which was never done.

    After eight and a half years of involvement in the death of John Kevin Connelly it would appear that the best that can be said of the Coroners Office of Ontario is that they don't know what they're doing. The worst is that they do. (More to follow)

  11. The ruling also reveals that the Coroner's Office has apparently unilaterally lowered the evidentiary standard legally required for a suicide determination from a 'high degree of probability supported by clear and cogent evidence" to a mere 'balance of probabilities'. Apparantly, one way of explaining why your actions breached the required rules is to simply retroactively change the rules.

    Last year the Ontario government amended the Coroners Act and announced a new oversight and complaints process along with the removal of the Minister's accountability function. One small problem. When the Connellys sought to access that process following the Chief Coroner's ruling they found that the new complaint body didn't exist because the sections in question haven't been proclaimed in force even though the section that removes the Minister's accountability role has. Gee…what a coincidence.

    The Connelly family and the people of Ontario clearly deserve a Coroners Office with independent oversight and accountability to ensure professional competence and appropriate performance of public duties. As I have come to know the Connellys…stay tuned because this isn't over yet.

  12. It is a shame that I did not ay closer attention to the original case when it broke so many years ago. From the little time that I knew John (having met and resided with him in his year at the Univeristy of Western Ontario), I found reading htis article, and subsequently reading all articles since his death, that there is a glaring issue in the Ontario system of investigation – from coroner to Police to first responders to original gathered information or lack there of. I am still sadden to think that such a promising student was unable to fulfill his future goals due to, what I can only deduce, was someone's deliberate act to end his life of a trivial issue back then. I wonder why his girlfriend/fiance at the time has not appeared in any further reports on this case, as apparently it was her information that lead the investigation to conclude as such. It was glaringly obvious from the Fifth Estate report that there was a failure to follow up on this particular lead of information.

    I can only imagine how the family, and John's friends have been handling this since his death. I can only imagine further how much it does not seem to bother the woman he was betrothed to.

    It is my hope that the family can find the person responsible for this, that a new set of investigative eyes can follow the clues through this case and release the truth about John's death. I still can't believe that of everyone I met that first year, it is he that has passed from this Earth. A great loss we have all faced, having been unable to meet this warm, genuinely caring, kind-hearted, driven young man. For those who had the fortune of meeting him, I am even further saddened that we will not have the chance of reacquainting in the future to catch up on the accolades of this man.

  13. Echoing the comments of others, one cannot help but wonder how such a critical conclusion can be reached and defended regarding the so-called suicide note. But this has been the pattern of response – a pattern repeated many times over.

    Over the more than eight years since the death of their son, the Connelly's have compiled considerable evidence that raises serious doubts about the case and the need for a complete review of not only the case findings but the role our institutions have played in addressing the concerns raised. At each stage the Connelly's have been met by indifference and stone walling by the very institutions that are there to protect the citizens of Ontario see http://www.aquestionoftrust.com. As citizens we have a right to expect accountability from the Coroner's Office, from the police and from our politicians.

  14. It is clear that Dr. Andrew McCallum deliberately misrepresented professor Craig Bennell' s study. My question is: why did he need to do that?

    The so- called suicide note is only one of many " evidences " that were not really proven in this case. Who will stand up and say: we need to look at the death of John Connelly again and find out exactly what happened? I know there exists such a brave heart out there.

  15. Dr. McCallum ignores the fact that the word "to" was considered a forgery in comparison to John's handwriting, but he presents his personal opinion "seems to me". I thought the purpose of the Coroner's office was to investigate/look at the facts presented to them. Also, it appears that he misrepresented the study of Dr. Bennell's – Why? Either that, or he did not understand the study.
    If the Coroner cannot be trusted to look at evidence presented, act upon it, or answer questions that arise, where can a citizen fo the province go for help?

  16. You can't make the world a just place. It isn't now and it never was. But just because we can't fight every injustice doesn't mean that we can't fight some of the worst abuses. This is one of them. A society and its justice system that isn't willing to say "Hey wait a minute – maybe things got screwed up here – let's go back and take a closer look" is a society that needs new leadership. Is there no parliamentarian or police official that will show us the leadership we need?

  17. At the root of this terrible situation was a wonderful, fun, humorous, caring, loving, happy, and alive person named John Kevin Connelly who continues to be abused by Ontario's justice system.

    This case is being defined as a suicide by the Coroner's Office based upon only one "fact" – the suicide note. However, after getting two opinions on the validity of the so called suicide note, the family was told that the "To" cannot be verified as being written by John. So this one key piece of factual evidence is called into question. Strange the Coroner's Office and its bureaucracy can't seem to accept this new evidence that calls the note into question.

    Many other facts were uncovered in the days and months following John's death – blood on his pillow, noise heard coming from his apartment in the hour leading up to his death, unaccounted for head injuries not attributed to his fall from the roof of the building.

    We certainly do need to keep asking the Coroner WHY? The fact that the Chief Coroner continues to take the advice of his staff and government lawyers to stonewall the Connelly family is extremely disturbing, frustrating, disheartening and discouraging to experience. Pride in our public institutions is not easy to feel when such lack of accountability is demonstrated by the Chief Coroner's Office.

  18. According to the article, one study indicates that “police officers are only correct about the authenticity of suicide notes 50 per cent of the time—as good as flipping a coin.” This leads me to question how many families have suffered as a result of these mistakes – thinking that their loved ones have taken their own lives? As a result of these errors, I also wonder how many murders have gone undetected and how many murderers have gone free? How safe does that make my family, my friends, or I?

    In this case, the Connellys did not flip a coin. Through the use of expert document examiners, the Connellys have proven that the note attributed to John is partially fake – leading to questions about the validity of the entire note, and thus the case as a whole. Yet, the coroner has chosen not to reopen the case. Does this mean that there is the potential that a murderer still out there? Who will that person potentially murder next? How many similar cases is the coroner choosing not to examine, leading to potential miscarriages of justice and endangerment of the public? Who exactly is the coroner protecting? As a citizen, I want accountability, and assurances from the Coroner's Office that my safety and the safety of the public is being protected.

    I am thankful that the Connellys have chosen to fight to reopen John's case. Their efforts may not only help to prove their case, but will also continue to bring this issue to attention – hopefully leading to meaningful change in the justice system, and helping to serve the public as a whole.

  19. It is terrifying to know that a top scientist in the Ontario government misrepresents scientific research articles to support his theories. How can an individual, who is supposedly trained in critical thinking and interpreting scientific research, not know the limitations of Dr. Bennell's research? How can an individual blatantly misrepresent research findings? But the biggest question is WHY?
    It is scary to think that there may be many more people who have had a similar experience with Ontario's Coroner's Office. How many other families have been told that their loved ones committed suicide, when in fact the police or Coroner made an assumption, a grave error, in assessing the validity of a suicide note.
    I agree with previous comments stating there is a need for public institutions and the individuals who work for them to be held accountable for their actions and inactions. There must be an oversight committee.
    I am so thankful that the Connelly's are continuing to fight the Coroner to reopen John's case. For John and for everyone involved in John's case who did not do their job- to be held accountable for their inactions.

  20. Misrepresents, oversight, error, supposedly, assumption, authenticity, inaccurate, unsustainable, presumption, accountability, properly investigate, ignoring, suspect, a broken system, failure….. and so many more! These are only a few words that have come to my mind following this tragic case after so many years. Reading these responses from many, clearly there are more than just a few that share the exact same sentiments of the Connelly family, friends and complete strangers who have followed this story whether from personal accounts, CBC, or Maclean's. There isn't much more that hasn't already been said, but as Canadians, you would hope that a system which should take care of their own, follows due process and does! I will throw in one more word, disgusting. Disgusting that it has taken 81/2 years for a family to get the answers to questions that have been asked. Happy Father's Day Dr. Connelly, I hope that the death of your son becomes a priority in the offices that are mentioned and that you and your family are treated with the respect that you deserve.

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