Jacob Kovco was a private in the Australian Army when he shot himself in the head in the confined space of his room in Baghdad, on 21st April 2006. Two other soldiers in the room at the time reported that they did not see what happened. The wrong body was subsequently returned to Australia. Kovco was the first Australian military casualty in Iraq. An army enquiry lasting five months concluded that Kovco was skylarking with his pistol when he shot himself. An inquest was later held in Sydney. A jury in April 2008 concluded that Pte Kovco shot himself in an irresponsible and reckless act, with disregard for the dangerous consequences of firing his gun.
I was approached by the NSW Homicide Squad in early January 2007 regarding Kovco’s death. The specific question posed to me was how he might have been positioned just prior to the pistol shot that killed him. Two possibilities were raised:
(a) Kovco may have put the pistol to his head and deliberately pulled the trigger himself, thinking that it was safe to do so, or
(b) Kovco may have had the pistol in his hand, in an armed state, with his finger on the trigger, when he bumped his arm or tripped and accidentally fired the pistol.
Scenario (b) was described in The Army Board of Inquiry report (p47-48) as “The Bump Hypothesis”. The Board was not satisfied that there were sufficient facts to support this hypothesis. The Board found that the evidence supported the first possibility, (a), implying that Kovko was skylarking with his own pistol.
Kovco was shot in the confined space of his room, which was rectangular in shape, having a floor area of 3.0 m x 4.2 m. The floor to ceiling height was 2.34 m. The trajectory of the bullet that killed him was defined by a bullet hole in the ceiling and a second bullet hole in the roof. A rod inserted through the two holes indicated that the bullet rose upwards at an angle of 50 degrees to the vertical, or 40 degrees to the ceiling and floor, and it travelled across the room at an angle of 14 degrees north of the narrow (East-West) dimension of the room, as shown in Fig. 1.
Fig. 1 Elevation view of Room 8 showing the bullet trajectory and the distance from the bed (0.70 m) if Kovko was standing upright when he was shot.
Report of the Board of Inquiry (June - Oct 2006)
The Board of Inquiry found that “Kovco was standing two paces away from his bunk bed" when he was shot. To emphasise this fact, it was repeated on p. 21 (paragraph 44), p. 48 (paragraph 158), p. 49 (paragraph 161), p. 50 (paragraph 162, point f) and p. 79 (point t vi.). I could find no evidence in the Board's report to justify this finding, apart from the verbal evidence of Pte Shore that he saw Pte Kovco falling at a point two paces away. Given that a “pace” is an ill-defined quantity, the finding is somewhat vague, but it was interpreted by The Board to mean that the bump hypothesis could be excluded and that Pte Kovco “died as a result of the inappropriate handling of his personal weapon" (p. 82, paragraph 283).
Pte Shore clarified in his interview with Det Hayes (Q386) that two paces means two metres. If Kovco was standing 2 m to the west of his bed when he was shot, he would have been standing in the middle of the west wall of Room 8. Furthermore, the bullet would have missed his head. In my report to the police I commented that “The Board's finding can therefore be dismissed as being obviously incorrect, if the Board's finding is taken at face value. The Board did not clarify its finding, did not provide a sketch to explain what it meant, did not define what it meant by a pace and did not quote the physical evidence to support its finding. In that respect, the Board appears not to have examined the physical evidence in appropriate detail, relying instead on the ambiguous and possibly unreliable verbal description of Pte Kovco's location given by Pte Shore.”
The Board gave weight to Shore's evidence that he saw Kovco falling straight down. Given Kovco's landing position on the floor, and the position of the blood stains near the wardrobe and single bed, the Board seems to have inferred that Kovco was standing upright at a point near the blood stains when he was shot. Shore did not witness the shot and did not see where Kovco was standing when he was shot. Shore said he turned around to see Kovco falling straight down, at least at the end of the fall. The beginning of the fall was not witnessed by Shore. It is possible that Kovco first fell away from his bed, through a distance of around 40 cm, and then fell vertically. If Kovco was standing directly above either of the blood stains when he was shot then the bullet would have missed his head unless he jumped up off the floor and then shot himself. If he was standing upright when he was shot then he was 0.70 m from his bed, as shown in Fig. 1, which is my own version of an accurate diagram provided to me by the Homicide Squad.
The distance from Kovco's bed to the wardrobe on the opposite side of the room was only 1.42 m. All that can be stated with certainty is that Kovco's head was located somewhere between the bed and the wardrobe when he was shot, as indicated in Fig. 1. In theory, his head could also have been located between the two bunks of his bed but the absence of blood stains anywhere on the bed indicates that this was not the case.
Photos here show a re-enactment to establish where Kovco was standing at the time, either crouched down or upright. He was close to the holster where he kept his pistol. My evidence was not requested by the coroner, and it was not presented at the inquest. The coroner called three psychologists, two suggesting that suicide was possible, and one ruled out suicide. The possibility of an accident was not fully explored at the inquest.