Editor's Note: This post is a joint reporting effort by Lori Alexander Moore and Roger Shuler.
One of the best pitchers in the history of the Baltimore Orioles franchise died last week. Authorities quickly ruled it a suicide, stating that Mike Flanagan died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. According to news reports, Flanagan had been experiencing financial problems and might have been despondent over his ouster as an Orioles executive in 2008. The once-proud Baltimore franchise has struggled to compete against the deep-pocketed New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the American League East, baseball's toughest division.
A mix of personal and professional struggles, it seems, contributed to Mike Flanagan's decision to kill himself. And that caused us to think about Major Bashinsky, the prominent Alabama lawyer whose body was discovered in March 2010, floating in a golf-course water hazard.
Like Flanagan, Bashinsky died from a gunshot wound to the head. And as in the Flanagan case, authorities ruled it was self inflicted. But officials in the Flanagan case asked a question that seemingly has received little attention in the Bashinsky case: Why would this man kill himself? In fact, our research indicates the Jefferson County Medical Examiner's office concluded that Bashinsky committed suicide without even checking the criteria for making such a determination.
Gary T. Simmons, M.D., associate coroner/medical examiner for Jefferson County, concluded that Bashinsky killed himself. The following section from the autopsy report states the basis for Simmons' finding. (See the full autopsy report at the end of this post.) As we reported in a previous post, Simmons presents no forensic evidence to support a suicide finding; the conclusion is based solely on a police investigation:
The decedent was found in a golf course pond with ligatures as described. However, the ligatures were such that the decedent essentially had complete freedom of movement. As described, the decedent had a contact gunshot wound of his head consistent with causing this wound, car keys, duct tape similar to that used to bind on the decedent, and scissors being found in the ponder generally under the area where the decedent's body was found. Furthermore, the decedent was reportedly witnessed buying duct tape and rope similar to that found on the body at a hardware store with the decedent also being video taped the day he was reported missing in a coffee shop near this hardware store. At that time he was apparently dressed in the same clothes he was found in. The decedent appeared alone in this video. Taking these facts into consideration as well as the findings of the rest of the investigation it is our opinion that this was a self inflicted gunshot wound. It is therefore our opinion that the cause of death is best listed as contact gunshot wound to the head with the manner of death being suicide.
Nothing in Simmons' report, and nothing in press accounts, indicates that officials have any idea why Major Bashinsky would want to kill himself. In fact, it isn't clear that the question was asked in a serious way.
Is that how the investigation of a possible suicide is supposed to be conducted? Not according to "Current Trends: Operational Criteria for Determining Suicide," a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.
The criteria for making a determination of suicide come in two broad categories. Here is the breakdown, according to the CDC:
Self-Inflicted: There is evidence that death was self-inflicted. This may be determined by pathologic (autopsy), toxicologic, investigatory, and psychologic evidence and by statements of the decedent or witnesses.We have seen no signs--from either the medical-examiner's report or from news accounts--that any of these factors were present in Major Bashinsky's case. In fact, we've seen little to indicate that a serious inquiry was made into any of these factors.
Intent: There is evidence (explicit and/or implicit) that, at the time of injury, the decedent intended to kill himself/herself or wished to die and that the decedent understood the probable consequences of his/her actions. This evidence may include:
* Explicit verbal or nonverbal expression of intent to kill self;
* Implicit or indirect evidence of intent to die, such as:
(1) preparations for death inappropriate to or unexpected in the context of the decedent's life,
(2) expression of farewell or the desire to die or an acknowledgment of impending death,
(3) expression of hopelessness,
(4) expression of great emotional or physical pain or distress,
(5) effort to procure or learn about means of death or to rehearse fatal behavior, precautions to avoid rescue,
(6) evidence that decedent recognized high potential lethality of means of death, previous suicide attempt, previous suicide threat,
(7) stressful events or significant losses (actual or threatened), or serious depression or mental disorder.
Sloan Bashinsky Jr., Major's older brother, has theorized on his blog that Major was bisexual and feared being outed. Sloan Bashinsky Jr., however, has offered little or no evidence to support a claim that his brother was bisexual. Even if this is assumed to be true, one must ask some obvious questions: "If Major Bashinsky had lived with this issue for 63 years, why did he suddenly decide to end his life over it? If someone had threatened to out Major Bashinsky as bisexual, whether it was true or not, that could amount to extortion under state or federal law; why has no investigation seemingly been launched? If Sloan Bashinsky Jr. is on target about his theory, why has he apparently never been interviewed by authorities?"
For that matter, why is there little sign that anyone close to Major Bashinsky was interviewed about his state of mind?
Certainly many suicide cases conclude with no clear answer as to why the decedent took his own life. But Major Bashinsky was well known, from one of Alabama's most prominent business families, and his death occurred in a highly public fashion. In such circumstances, as the Mike Flanagan case shows, it is common to look at what might have driven a person to suicide.
Those kinds of questions certainly have not been answered in the Major Bashinsky case. And it's not clear that they even have been asked.
Gary Simmons, the Jefferson County medical examiner, serves on the School of Medicine faculty at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Reporter Lori Alexander Moore has requested an interview with Simmons about the Bashinsky case. He has not responded to voice messages left at his office.
Officials in Maryland followed the professional guidelines for making a determination of suicide in the Mike Flanagan case. Why were the same guidelines apparently not followed in the Alabama case of Major Bashinsky?