12th Greek Australian Legal and Medical Conference
Samos, Greece 2009

TRUTH AND LIES - THE ROLE OF THE FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST

Professor David J. Williams

The Forensic Pathologist, when practising in the tropics, may encounter problems attending the scene of a death. One problem is the tyranny of distance; a visit by the Forensic Pathologist to the scene may delay the transfer of a dead body to a refrigerated mortuary. Bodies found in isolated areas in the tropics may be putrefied (decomposed) when first found and the decomposition only becomes more severe with; 1. time, 2. continued exposure to warm conditions, and 3. delayed transfer.

Examination of scene photographs taken by the Police, although a poor second to the Pathologist attending the scene, can be extremely useful in the evaluation of “the obscure autopsy”. Such photographs may reveal; (a) curious features not relevant to the death and (b) explanations as to why death occurred. The difficulty is to distinguish relevant features from artefacts or other items that may cause misdirection.

Decomposition is notorious for producing artefacts that may simulate natural causes of death and also artefacts that may imitate the signs of foul play. Gas produced by decomposition is flammable and early Forensic Pathologists used to light this gas in order to minimise the accompanying bad smell. This gas can also act as a propellant to items draped on the body, such as a plastic bag without an accompanying ligature.

Examples have been given during the presentation of what is a true finding and what is a false lead. Experience and to some extent, histological examination, can distinguish the two.

The cause of death given by a Forensic Pathologist is typically presented as descriptions of pathology found. Occasionally, bizarre items may be featured in an individual case, but the cause of death as routinely given by the Forensic Pathologist tends not to mention such items in the certificate, the items being described separately in the report to the Coroner. Obviously the Coroner can then decide what such items may mean in evaluation of accident, suicide, natural causes or whatever.