Did you know?
LHSC is the regional centre in southwestern Ontario for forensic pathology
It is not uncommon for the practice of forensic pathology to conjure images inspired by popular television of the miracle-working detective who races against time to solve murders by finding damning DNA evidence and chase down criminals, all within a neat 60-minute timeframe (minus commercials).
Last year, nearly 500 coroners’ autopsies, including sudden natural deaths, accidents, homicides and suicides were completed at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC). While television may sensationalize the practice, it does not make the work they do any less interesting.
Providing a vital community service to London and beyond
From post-mortem examinations to criminal proceedings, forensic pathologists and their team can play a pivotal role in determining how someone has died.
“Our work provides closure for families,” says Dr. Mike Shkrum, Forensic Pathologist and Division Leader for Autopsy Services. “It’s important for the coroner’s investigation and inquests, for the community at large, and public safety. If it’s a criminal matter, it’s important for legal proceedings as well.”
After the coroner issues a warrant for a post-mortem examination, the case is presented to a forensic pathologist and his or her assistants. In criminally suspicious cases, police are directly involved in the autopsy to collect evidence.
The first step is establishing identity which is usually by visual means. Depending on the nature of the case – for example, a fire death – this can require different methods.
“LHSC has three odontologists who examine dental records,” says Dr. Shkrum. “Radiologists may also look at X-rays taken during an autopsy which are compared to X-rays that were taken during the individual’s life. A tissue sample from a previous surgical procedure preserved in a pathology department can also be used as a source of DNA.”
Families may play a crucial role in identification by providing photographs, a physical description of their loved one, or even submitting DNA from a hairbrush or toothbrush.
Common tests during a forensic autopsy
- Toxicology: collection of blood and urine samples from the body to determine if there are drugs or poisons present.
- Biochemical analysis: a fluid sample taken from the eyes to determine if a fatal condition such as a diabetic complication is present.
- X-Rays: determine if there are skeletal fractures.
While many post-mortem examinations are completed within a few hours, other cases have taken the autopsy team an entire day or more.
A formal report is issued to the investigating coroner, the Regional Supervising Coroner and the Chief Forensic Pathologist at the provincial Forensic Pathology Unit in Toronto.
Testifying in court
A preliminary hearing determines whether there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. During hearings and the trial, the pathologist provides not only a cause of death but also an interpretation of other aspects of the case such as non-fatal injuries. Dr. Shkrum averages about five legal proceedings per year.
“The preparation may take a bit of time to refresh one’s memory. It’s almost like preparing for an exam,” he says.
While pathologists are usually called as a witness for the crown, their duty is to the court.
“We’re there to help the court, help the defense, the crown attorney, the judge, and ultimately the jury if it’s a jury trial,” he says. “We’re there to be an objective witness.”