By Annalise Kempen
Information provided by Dr Shakeera Holland
Television series have played a significant role in creating public interest about forensic science and the investigation of crime. Unfortunately, the timelines and ideal conditions that are created in many of these programmes in which these television forensic scientists work, are often worlds apart from what forensic practitioners deal with in reality. One of the aspects that usually forms part of the storylines is the post-mortem examinations that are performed on deceased victims. And while many of us may find the process disgusting and nauseating, it is one of the most important aspects in revealing the truth about the cause of a person’s unnatural death through to the application of forensic science.
When someone dies, we all want to know what had caused their death and whether the person died as a result of an illness, disease or due to an unnatural cause. In the latter case, it is important to determine the exact cause of death to know whether someone should be held responsible for that person’s untimely passing. For this purpose, a forensic pathologist or forensic medical practitioner who has been registered and appointed in terms of regulation 16 of the Health Professions Act 56 of 1974, has to perform a post-mortem examination, which can include an autopsy, on the deceased’s body.
Post-mortem examinations and autopsies are said to date back more than 2000 years ago to ancient Roman times. It is widely reported that the post-mortem examination that Antistius, a doctor who may have been Julius Caesar’s personal physician, performed on Caesar, could be history’s first recorded application of medical knowledge to an unnatural death. Caesar was stabbed 23 times, but only one stab between the first and second rib proved fatal. This knife stroke was lodged with an upward-angled thrust just below the left shoulder blade which pierced Caesar’s heart. Even though it was impossible to verify the physician’s conclusions as Caesar’s body was cremated, it has been noted that Antistius’s inquiry marked the beginning of the pathologist’s role as an expert witness to murder (Bursztajn, 2005).
Forensic science is defined as “the application of scientific methods and techniques to matters under investigation by a court of law” (https://www.lexico.com/definition/forensic_ science). In South Africa, the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) was established on 15 January 1971 with various specialised units, namely biology, chemistry and electronics. Through the years, more specialised units, including the Ballistics and Questioned Document Units, which previously resorted under the SA Criminal Bureau, were amalgamated with the FSL. The activities of the various FSL units include the application of scientific principles, methods and techniques to the process of investigation. Forensic scientists have to perform the analysis of physical evidence objectively to search for the truth, with the intention of bringing perpetrators of crime to justice while simultaneously protecting innocent people from prosecution (SAPS, Nd). However, one of the subdisciplines of forensic science which does not resort under the FSL is the Forensic Pathology Services.
In 1998, Cabinet approved the transfer of the Medico-legal laboratories (MLL) or government mortuaries as they are commonly referred to, from the South African Police Service (SAPS) to the Department of Health. These MLLs were transferred to the Department of Health on 1 April 2006. The reasons for the transfer to another department included that Government wanted to improve objectivity and transparency regarding the handling of bodies and post-mortems, especially when it came to the handling of evidence regarding deaths in police custody (Kempen, 2006). It was a serious concern that the SAPS could not be the custodian of bodies due to possible conflict of interests since SAPS members might have been the perpetrators of murders or culpable negligence.