Can a person really be “scared to death“?

Prosecutors are trying to charge a bank robber for murder after he broke into a little old lady’s home and hid there. The little old lady apparently found him in her home and died from a heart attack. Police are trying to say that the cause of the heart attack was “terror” from the adrenaline rush the lady experienced when she found the hiding felon.

I’m not buying it.

Maaaaybe in theory. Maaaaybe we’ll see this scenario on some future episode of “House.” In reality a prosecutor is going to have a hard time proving beyond a reasonable doubt that an adrenaline rush caused a woman to die. If her heart was that fragile, how do we know that it wasn’t just her walking up the stairs to change the channel to “the Price is Right”?

If we’re saying that sudden CNS stimulation is causing sudden death, are coffee cans and Starbucks cups going to have to post a disclaimer that “this stuff can kill you”?

Just don’t get rid of my Red Bull.


  1. Doesn’t matter if A led to B. Guy was committing a felony, lady died. Most states have statutes now that a death that occurs related to a felony constitutes “murder”. Same thing would have happened if she tripped, fell down the stairs, and broke her neck.

    • Disagree. Bank robber was “hiding out,” not robbing the woman. Felony was completed.
      Unless we’re going to say that “hiding out” constitutes continuance of the felony … in which case everyone who has committed a felony continues to commit a felony until they are caught – since almost all criminals attempt to avoid detection and prosecution.

      • “Hiding out” in her house is breaking and entering. I bet prosecutors are going to argue he had intent to commit other crimes there as well, so it might even equal burglary in this case.

        Better analogy: bank robber takes customers hostage at bank. One of them is diabetic, goes into a coma, and dies. Bank robber can be charged with murder.

      • Not a criminal attorney, but don’t think that B&E is a felony. If I’m wrong, then forget the above comment.
        In your example, if bank robber is still holding hostages, then he is still in the act of a felony and felony murder rule applies, no?

  2. B&E is definitely a crime, at least in my state:

    “A person commits second degree burglary, if the person knowingly breaks an entrance into, enters unlawfully in, or remains unlawfully after a lawful or unlawful entry in a building or occupied structure with intent to commit therein a crime against another person or property.”

    Apparently this is considered a Class 3 felony in my state.

    This particular crime would be considered first degree murder as follows:

    “Acting either alone or with one or more persons, he or she commits or attempts to commit arson, robbery, burglary . . . and, in the course of or in furtherance of the crime that he or she is committing or attempting to commit, or of immediate flight therefrom, the death of a person, other than one of the participants, is caused by anyone . . .”

    The problem, really, would be in proving that the elderly woman’s death was caused by finding a stranger in her home.

  3. Murder by heart attack is a well-known, well respected forensic diagnosis. LOL with known CAD finds a burglar in her home, and collapses. That’s a slam-dunk homicide conviction in this state. Fact is, most coroners her in Ohio would certify that the assault/fear was the proximate cause up until about 12 hours after the event.

    This entity only happens in people with severe coronary artery disease/ischaemic cardiomyopathy, true. But if there is little as 1/10th of 1% of a contribution by violence, even threatened, verbal violence or just exhibiting a weapon, this would not be a natural death. The forensic theory is “you take your victim as you find them” and any adverse consequences of your attacking/threatening them (and hiding in someone’s house and surprising them is a threat, particularly if the victim is elderly or infirm). Heck, surprising someone in your house is grounds for use of deadly force.

    The published criteria for murder by heart attack diagnosis is when there is no physical contact between assailant and victim. I found one reference for you on PubMed: J Forensic Sci. 2004 May;49(3):598-600.

    I’ve certified these deaths myself, and I had one woman who was trying to commit suicide and had her MI when she test fired her gun into the wall. Usually, this adds on an aggravating specification, (homicide in the context of another crime) which in Ohio could allow for a death-qualified jury.

    The point, also, is to discourage people from beating up on the elderly and infirm.

    • Wow.
      What happened to murder requiring “malice aforethought”?
      I got the impression from the article that the bank robber just broke into the old lady’s house and was hiding in the basement or something similar. If he was attacking or threatening the lady or was preventing her from calling police, then I agree – you take them as you get them.
      Thanks for the cite – updated it with a link to the abstract.

      • William the Coroner on

        Malice aforethought is an aggravating specification, but it is not required for homicide. I’ll do a couple of posts on this on my blog, one specifically and one on homicide. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. We discussed scenarios like this in my ethics class while in college. I imagine there was no intent to kill, nevertheless, if her death resulted of being frightened by the burglar I’d say involuntary manslaughter might stick.

  5. Adrenaline rush——>increased HR and myocardial oxygen demand, and perhaps this was her “stress test” and she failed. You don’t have to step on a treadmill to take a stress test and “CNS stimulation” doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

    Can’t say I feel sorry for the intruder.

  6. Pingback: Murder By Heart Attack « William The Coroner’s Forensic Files

  7. Coming back on ‘Can someone be scared to death?’ I’d like to share what my family believed happened to my uncle.

    He was killed in a car accident and from what I’ve heard (you never know what’s true and what’s not…) he was scared to death. Apparently he died before the impact of the accident because he got so scared that his aorta gave out.

    Again, not sure whether this is true…but just wondering if it is possible that you can actually die from getting so scared that you’re body can’t take it.

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