Kurt Cobain: Assessing a Drug’s Effects

By Douglas P. Lyle

On April 5, 1994, the body of Kurt Cobain, singer/songwriter for the grunge rock group Nirvana, was found in an over-the-garage apartment at his home. His wife, Courtney Love, was in another state at the time of his death, so he was home alone. Or at least it appeared that way.

He was found lying on his back, with a shotgun resting on his chest, and an obvious shotgun blast beneath his chin was the cause of death. A suicide note was found nearby. The manner of death was determined to be suicide. But was it?

Many things about the scene were problematic for investigators. Kurt had large amounts of heroin in his system. The shotgun was in an inverted position on his chest so that the ejection port of the semiautomatic shotgun was to his right. Yet, the ejected shell was on the floor to his left. How could this happen? It is unlikely the shotgun spun around as it discharged, as the barrel was tightly gripped in Cobain’s left hand due to fairly instantaneous rigor mortis, which can occasionally occur in such sudden traumatic deaths.

Did someone kill him while he was heavily sedated by the heroin and then place the gun there to make it look like a suicide? Possible. Particularly since many believe that the suicide note wasn’t really that at all but rather simply the ramblings that Kurt was famous for penning.

Since then, the medical examiner (ME) and forensic toxicology communities have been divided over the true manner of death. One side feels that with so much heroin in his system, Kurt would not have been able to operate the shotgun and cause his own death. He was simply too wasted to do so.

Others counter that since he was a chronic user, with multiple trips to rehab for heroin addiction, he could handle higher doses and still function as compared to someone who was a casual user, or someone who had never used heroin at all. They feel he could easily have taken his own life. The case remains controversial, and as yet is unresolved on these points.

As you can see, the job of the ME and forensic toxicologist isn’t always straightforward. Determining what drugs are present and in what amounts is critical, and usually fairly easy, but determining how that level of that drug affected the victim’s abilities isn’t always so clear. In the end, the ME and toxicologist must make a “best guess” as to the drug’s true effects in the particular victim being examined.