Why postmortem is necessary even when cause of death looks obvious
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Last month, a body of a woman was found floating on Lake Muhazi in Kayonza District, as onlookers gathered to identify the victim. A family member recognised the victim and soon after police transported the body to Rwamagana hospital for a ‘postmortem.’
A fortnight earlier, another person had been found hanging on a rope in a house in Burera District – obviously dead – and from a layman’s eye, it was suicide. Police was called in and took the body to Butaro Hospital; again for a ‘postmortem.’
We have all heard or read about similar circumstances of people found dead where poisonous drugs are found next to the body and the immediate police position is that “the body is taken to hospital for a postmortem as investigations continue”.
The initial presumption is that investigators want to ascertain the cause of death; but why should police – with the help of pathologists - conduct autopsies even when cause of death looks obvious?
According to Chief Supt. Dr Francois Sinayobye, a Rwanda National Police (RNP) pathologist at Kacyiru Hospital, postmortems are meant to “prove beyond doubt the true cause of death.”
He says that if there are suspicious circumstances or if unnatural death takes place “there is good reason for carrying out the examinations.”
“We don’t usually take chances and erroneously conclude that all deaths reported occurred naturally or are accidents, we take them as incidents until proven otherwise,” Dr. Sinayobye says.
Inspector of Police Fred Ruhorimbere, a Scene of Crime Officer (SOCO), investigated the suicide case in Burera.
“The deceased’s body was found hanging in his house with a rope around his neck. One would have gone ahead to believe that the victim committed suicide. But the autopsy results proved otherwise; he had been long dead before the alleged suicide. He was killed and hanged to make it look like suicide,” IP Ruhorimbere says.
“The autopsy and scientific finding helped to trace and arrest the culprit,” he adds.
“The pathologist will attempt to recreate what happened by first determining what didn’t happen… proving that an unknown person, in some way, is responsible for the alleged drowning, suicide or death in general by scientifically looking at the wounds or bruises, or indeed if an eye witness has seen the event taking place,” says Chief Supt. Sinayobye.
Drowning as a crime
Dr Sinayobye gives an example of drowning to drive his point home. He says when someone drowns, water is sucked into the lungs.
“If water is found in the lungs then the most likely conclusion is that death was caused by drowning and is then listed as death by accident,” he adds.
“We have to assume that there is a likelihood that the deceased was either alive or not alive when they entered the waters and we have to prove that.”
“We investigate many things; these might include presence or lack of pieces of plant life only found underwater, sand, stones or rocks and evidence of clawing on the fingers and hands in order to try and escape,” he explains.
Dr Sinayobye points out that if a body is intact and in a reasonable state of preservation, it might be possible to recover blood samples, pulled hair samples (hair roots) which are used in laboratory examinations.
All the findings will inform the crime scene investigators who compile a report on an inquest form that may be used for criminal court proceedings.
These specialists are experts in medico-legal autopsies, criminal investigation, judicial testimony, toxicology, and other forensic sciences.
This information can be useful to the police in the case of a crime, but it can also be useful to family who should know the medical history of their loved one, and if his or her ill health was the cause of death, and ensure that all the appropriate data is recorded.
Crime scene management
According to IP Ruhorimbere, it is very important to protect the scene of crime and members of the public should avoid tampering with such places.
“The most important aspect of evidence collection and preservation is protecting the crime scene. When a crime scene is interfered with, it becomes difficult to arrive at a progressive and conclusive scientific decision; no one should touch or come near the scene of crime, just contact the police or cordon off the area before police arrives,” advises IP Ruhorimbere.
He further notes that unwitting person who enters the crime scene will carry or leave incriminating evidence by erasing the criminal’s evidence but leave his own.
“If you handle the door where a case of house break-in is being investigated, laboratory tests will show your fingerprints which means you are the prime suspect,”
Spencer Bugingo, a Senior State Attorney, also says that successful prosecution of a case can hinge on the state of the physical evidence at the time it is collected.
This practice, is implemented accurately, would improve quality of medico-legal investigation, help in increasing the conviction rate, and reduce the state’s expenditure and anxiety in uncovering a crime.