What can a tiny bone tell us about Jeffrey Epsteins death?
Jeffrey Epstein pleaded not guilty to charges of drug trafficking and allegedly sexually abusing dozens of underage girls in New York and Florida. USA TODAY
The investigation into disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein’s death could hinge on a minute bone in his neck that in the past has shed light on whether a cause of death is a suicide or a murder.
Epstein’s autopsy reportedly showed multiple broken neck bones, the Washington Post wrote Thursday, citing anonymous sources. But the curiosity surrounds one of the broken bones: The hyoid.
Though the bone is small, it’s been critical in several high-profile cases. The reason: The hyoid can break when a person dies by hanging, particularly when a person is older. But it can also provide tell-tale clues that a person was strangled.
Barbara Sampson, New York City’s chief medical examiner who is handling Epstein’s autopsy, said that the discovery of the broken hyoid doesn’t determine anything. The cause of the financier’s death is still pending.
“In all forensic investigations, all information must be synthesized to determine the cause and manner of death,” Sampson said in a statement to USA TODAY. “Everything must be consistent; no single finding can be evaluated in a vacuum.”
Epstein, 66, was found early Saturday in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. He had a bedsheet around his neck. According to the New York Post, he had tied the bedsheet to the bunk and leaned toward the floor to kill himself.
A broken hyoid is often used in evidence to determine whether a victim was strangled:
A woman in Maine, Roxanne Jeskey, was found guilty in 2014 for killing her husband by strangling him, and the strangulation was proven by a broken hyoid.
In 2011, Rebecca Zahau died in California. She reportedly was found hanging from a balcony in a beachside mansion. Years later, investigators looked to the hyoid bone to theorize whether she might have been a homicide victim.
Earlier this year, in Georgia, a man, Shanard D. Rease, murdered an older woman by strangling her. Reports cited that her hyoid bone was fractured.
An unbroken hyoid is also occasionally cited as a reason to prove that an accused party is not guilty of strangulation.
In a widely followed case in the New York City borough of Staten Island in 2014, Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo was accused with fatally choking Eric Garner. Pantaleo and other officers approached Garner, who they suspected was selling cigarettes without tax stamps. The officers attempted to arrest Garner and Pantaleo put him in a chokehold; Garner died after going into cardiac arrest.
But in a December 2018, release, the Police Benevolent Association said that their president, Patrick J. Lynch, called for charges against Pantaleo to be dropped since the hyoid was intact.
Garner “did not die of strangulation of the neck from a chokehold which would have caused a crushed larynx (windpipe) and a fractured hyoid bone,” said the release.