Everyone knows the story.
The body in the morgue was identified as belonging to Ronald Opus.
It had a massive shotgun wound in the head.
Witnesses had seen the victim shot outside an apartment window.
So, a clear-cut case of murder.
But the apartment had been on the ninth floor.
The victim had been falling past it when he was shot.
The police had found a suicide note on the roof.
So, a clear-cut case of suicide.
But, unknown to the victim, construction workers had strung a safety net across the building at the seventh floor.
And he wouldn’t have died.
So, back to a clear-cut case of murder.
But the man who fired the gun, inside the apartment, didn’t know it was loaded.
He and his wife were arguing, and he usually waved the empty gun around for dramatic effect.
His wife verified this.
It only went off because they weren’t expecting it to be loaded.
So, a clear-cut case of accidental death.
But the couple who were arguing were actually Ronald Opus’s parents.
The mother had disinherited him and the father didn’t agree.
Ronald Opus knew they often argued using the empty gun.
So he loaded it with live ammunition, about six weeks before.
Hoping his father would accidentally shoot his mother.
A witness had seen him do it.
But after six weeks, he became depressed at the failure of his plan.
So he went up to the roof and threw himself off.
On the very day that his plan finally worked.
As he fell, the gun went off, missed his mother and killed him as he fell past the window.
They recovered his otherwise undamaged body from the safety net.
The judge now had a difficult problem: what was the crime and who was guilty?
The victim was obvious, Ronald Opus.
But Ronald Opus had also loaded the gun and engineered the shooting. That meant he was the perpetrator and the victim.
The judge had to find Ronald Opus guilty of murdering himself.
And he was forced to record a verdict of suicide.
That’s how the newspapers reported the story.
That’s the story everyone knows.
It’s a good story.
The only problem is, it isn’t true; it’s an urban legend.
So good that even newspaper reporters believed it.
Dr. Harper Mills had told that story when he was President of The American Association of Forensic Sciences in 1994.
He made it up, himself, at least ten years earlier, to illustrate all the twists and turns a forensic scientist has to consider.
But it was such a good story it began to spread.
That’s what a great story does.
If you put Ronald Opus into Google you’ll get nearly two million results in a quarter of a second.
But when Dr Harper Mills first told that story there was no Google, no social media, no internet, and no Ronald Opus.
It spread because people love a good story.
That was true before there was any digital media, before film, before radio, even before Gutenberg invented movable type.
What we used to call a good story is now called ‘content’.
But it won’t spread just because of new media buzzwords.
It only spreads if it’s good.