Forensic pathology is a subspecialty of pathology that is concerned with determining the cause of death by examining a corpse. It focuses on medico-legal investigations of a victim who succumbed to sudden or unexpected death.
A forensic pathologist’s work primarily revolves around identifying the victim’s cause of death and reconstructing the events that took place in the crime scene. This is carried out meticulously and in a painstaking manner. Some of the components of this role involve the performing of autopsy investigations to both the external and internal organs to uncover the root cause of death. There is also the examining of tissue samples derived from the bodies by use of powerful microscopes to assist in unearthing the pathological basis for the demise.
There are actually two branches of this discipline namely; clinical- which is associated with the laboratory examination of samples extracted from the corpses and anatomic- which is involved with the structural alterations of the human body. Generally, most people who have studied forensic pathology have majored in the two. An expert in forensic pathology can easily establish the cause of death, estimate the time and even infer to the type of weapon used. These specialists can also provide valuable insight on whether a given victim’s death was as a result of a homicide or a suicide; establish the identity of the deceased and determine whether there were any added effects of trauma or pre-existing conditions that the victim may have had before he succumbed.
Because forensic pathology is medico-legal, an autopsy is conducted so as to make a permanent and legal record of the victim as soon as possible. The record usually comprises of the minute and gross anatomical peculiarities of the deceased body. These autopsies are usually conducted in local hospitals or licensed morgues in accordance to the legal stipulations of that province.
In some instances, anatomic examinations can fail to establish the cause of death unless the forensic pathology specialist is provided access to the victim’s medical documents and other information such as his life history and psychiatric data.
There are also “psychological autopsies” that forensic pathologists carry out although these are yet to be incorporated into the legal system. Not to be confused with forensic psychology, these autopsies involve discussions by a group of specialists, based on the victim’s life history, the events surrounding his death and the anatomic examination carried out to speculate the cause of his death. These outcomes are then added to the victim’s records. Irrespective of everything else, the “manner of death record” records the examining forensic pathologists thoughts on whether the cause of death was a suicide or a homicide. In the beginning, there was a tug-of-war between the law court officials and forensic groups as to whether this should be should be included in the law. Prosecutors feared that too much speculation could lead to inaccurate findings. Nonetheless, the odds are quickly shaping out to the pathologists favor although nothing has been declared officially.
Not all cases in forensic pathology are either suicide or homicides. There are a few special cases where the victim’s death is described as being “natural”. For instance, if the immediate cause simply aggravated an earlier pre-existing condition, then the pathologist has no alternative but to declare it natural. It is also worth noting that the verdict of a case only changes from suicide to homicide when a discovery is made of another person being involved in the immediate cause of death of the deceased.