Forensic Pathology Essay Sample

Forensic Pathology Essay Sample

Forensic Pathology according to Vincent and others refers to a branch of medicine where principles as well as knowledge of medical sciences are applied to solve problems related or rather dealing with the field of law. In this respect therefore, forensic pathology tries to determine not only the causes of death but also the manner and mechanisms that deaths actually occurred. (Dimaio V and  Dana S, 2006). Forensic pathology is also very important in the determination of the time that deaths occurred. Determination of the time that injuries and deaths occurred is important in the criminal justice system as it helps in determining if suspects are guilty of crimes in question or not. Suspects can be released on the basis of alibi when it is established that they were far from the scene of crime when the crime occurred. This paper will by and large explain what forensic pathology is, what it entails, the other branches it relates to as well as the processes involved. It will also discuss the differences between hospital pathology and forensic pathology.

 Forensic Pathology is beneficial to the family of the deceased as it can provide important information like the presence of some genetically inherited diseases and they can use such information to take relevant precautions. Forensic Pathology determines if there are any other possible causative factors that could have precipitated the death. It is a reliable method as expert testimony can be applied in solving court cases. Hospital pathologist may pave way for loopholes where deaths can be caused by negligence or malpractice while the victim’s family remains in the dark. (Wecht C, Rago J, Wecht B, 2006). On the contrary the forensic pathologist will dig deeper as he or she is not contented with the explanations indicated by the medical experts. (Dimaio V and  Dana S, 2006).

Human life is highly valued and each case of death must be well investigated to establish the cause of death, manner of death as well as the mechanisms involved. Death instances that require or rather demand medical expertise paving way for the application of forensic pathology include deaths that have occurred suddenly, violent deaths, those that have not been attended to by medical personnel’s, deaths that have occurred within institutions for instance in prisons, suspicious deaths or any death that was unexpected. (Wecht C, Rago J, Wecht B, 2006). Deaths’ demanding for the attention of a forensic pathologist varies from one jurisdiction to the next. Death in this context is referred as the cessation of both the cardiac or the respiratory functioning of a human being. (Dimaio V and  Dana S, 2006).

According to forensic pathologists those deaths that occur due to other factors but had initially been triggered by certain causes are said to have occurred due to the prior causes. An illustration of such deaths is a case where someone dies from pneumonia or tuberculosis after being in a coma due to head injuries. To a forensic pathologist, if those injuries were caused intentionally by another individual they are seen to be responsible for those deaths. (Dimaio V and  Dana S, 2006). In such cases therefore the individuals in question should be accountable for their deeds and the forensic pathologists carries the necessary investigations which are later applied in the criminal justice systems.

The cause of death refers to a disease or injury that is responsible for the cessation of cardiac or respiratory functioning of the body.  In their book, Handbook of Forensic Pathology, Vincent and Dana argue that the mechanisms of death are those factors that distort the normal functioning of the body; they produce physiological derangements in the body precipitating the death of individuals. Some of the examples they offer to illustrate what is meant by mechanisms of death are massive hemorrhage that is caused by causes of death like a gun shot or from a stab. (Dimaio V and  Dana S, 2006). Forensic pathologists work to fill the gap that created by medical personnel’s who could for instance argue that the cause of death was due to massive hemorrhage while leaving the vital issues unaddressed. Simply indicating that death was due to massive hemorrhage without elaborating what caused it is providing insufficient information to the relevant parties and is therefore inappropriate.

             The manner of death entails providing or rather offering explanations as to how the cause of death arose. Questions that are answered while establishing the manner of death are whether death was due to natural causes, homicide or if it was accidental. Deaths are said to be homicide when there is the involvement of a second individual. Not all homicide cases turn out to be as a result of criminal activities and it is the role of the court systems to determine if homicide cases were murder cases. (Dimaio V and  Dana S, 2001). At some instances the forensic pathologist may define the manner of death as ‘undetermined’. This happens when after thorough investigations the findings arrived at are inadequate to define death as homicide, accidental or due to natural causes. The manner of death can also be said to be unclassified when the findings establish that it can fall in two or more manners of death. A good illustration of such deaths is when a mentally challenged person believes in his flying abilities and jumps from a skyscraper. Whether the manner of such deaths are to be classified as suicide or accidents is difficult to determine and hence the term ‘unclassified’.  (Dimaio V and  Dana S, 2001).

             Forensic pathologists can establish or determine the time that death took place. This role is very critical especially in the criminal justice systems not only in the civil cases but also in the criminal cases. For instance if a murder suspect is found to have been away from the crime scene by the time death took place they are likely to be viewed as innocent on the basis of alibi. (Dimaio V and  Dana S, 2006). On the other hand if by the time of death the suspects are found to have been near or around the crime scene this calls for intensive investigations on them. Determination of the time that death took place is critical as it reduces the scope or rather the number of suspects that are to be investigated and this is important as it ensures that fewer resources are used in the process. The various means in determining the time of death include the use of livor mortis, rigor mortis, body temperatures, insect activities as well as the degree of decomposition.

 Livor mortis is the blood coloration that occurs due to the settlement of blood on the areas where gravity has been exerted on the body. It occurs from half and progresses with time and stops as decomposition starts. The coloration however differs if death is caused by cyanide of when the body has been exposed to excessive cold or refrigeration. (Dimaio V and  Dana S, 2006).  Rigor mortis which is also referred as the stiffening of the body is also used when determining the time of death. Rarely does it occur immediately after death but it may start after two hours and progresses from the jaw muscles to the face before proceeding to the other parts of the body. After 6 to 12 hours the body reaches full mortis and this like the livor mortis stops when decomposition starts. Rigor mortis persistence is influenced by climate. The body temperatures as well as the checking the stomach contents when the time a meal was consumed can be used to determine the time of death. (Dimaio V and  Dana S, 2006).

             Forensic pathologists play an important role in not only protecting human rights but also help in promoting occupational and environmental health. They are also at the fore front in reducing or rather preventing suicide and drug abuse. They are able to perform these roles due to the fact that they carry out thorough investigations in establishing the manner, causes, as well as mechanisms of death. Their findings are applied in the court systems and are well recorded and it is easier to use them in the policy making processes regarding relevant issues.

             There is a clear relationship between medicine and the law and forensic pathology is a definite example of how medicine relates to legal issues in the society. According to the College of American Pathologists, pathology is referred to as

      ‘the natural science that is concerned with the causes and nature of

       diseases processes as well as the anatomic and functional changes

              that occurs in conjunction with them. (Froede C, 2003).

In this respect therefore, pathology will embrace the use of laboratory examinations not only on the bodies of human bodies but also materials or objects found on dead human bodies to better understand diseases and other causes of diseases. Pathology goes the extra mile of verifying the causes of death away from a generalized conclusion that most medical specialists like doctors make when defining the causes of death. Forensic pathology carries out extensive research before making any conclusions and this makes their explanations viable and adequate.

             Forensic pathology uses autopsies as a core tool or weapon in carrying out their duties. However autopsies are not used in all death cases. Forensic pathologists embrace the evolving scientific innovations or knowledge to explain the causes of death. (Dimaio V and  Dana S, 2006). It is important to note that despite the fact that the hospital pathologist undergoes similar training with the forensic pathologist their views towards death as well as their duties are at variance. The hospital pathologist applies laboratory findings to explain or rather find an already existing relationship to data that they already have. They aim at finding the morphological changes and then relate them to certain clinical signs and symptoms. Unlike the hospital pathologists the forensic pathologist rarely uses one’s medical history in their investigations as this is in most cases missing.

             The forensic pathologists must be well equipped to work productively. For instance he or she must have the expertise or knowledge to handle all forms of death cases regardless of whether they occurred in homes, institutions or in any public place. Studying the traditional and modern medicine alike as well as the general knowledge about life will all be a necessity rather than a requirement. For one to conduct any medical autopsy for legal purposes one ought to be a licensed physician with formal training not only in the theory but also in practice on forensic pathology. (Dimaio V and  Dana S, 2006). To become a forensic pathologist one must be a medical doctor with a baccalaureate degree. During the four years spent in the medical school one must be matriculated as a pathology resident before undergoing a one year training on forensic pathology. They must successfully complete the American Board of Pathology as well as The American Council on Graduate Medical Education. (ACGME). ( Dolinak D, Matshes E and Lew E, 2005).

            According to Eckert W as indicated in his book, Introduction to Forensic Sciences  for a forensic pathologist to work effectively he or she must work in collaboration with other forensic scientists like on toxicology to establish if there were instances of poisoning. They must also work in harmony with the serologist, criminologists, anthropologists and those specializing in dentistry. Eckert W further explains that forensic pathology is biological in nature and it involves the collection of blood to not only classify it according to its type but also to check its content. When dealing with rape cases semen, saliva, bite marks or finger prints are examined in trying to establish the identity of the perpetrators. Forensic pathology can be able to establish if the blood in question is from an animal or is human. (Eckert W, 1997). To establish how long a body has been lying in a certain place they can study the insect or plant life in the areas that the body has been found.

             Forensic pathologists are very important in solving cases that seem mysterious or questionable. A good example of such cases is when an inmate dies while under police custody or when a child dies while in a foster home. The role of the forensic pathologist will be vital in establishing if there were instances of police brutality in the former case or child abuse in the latter case. If forensic findings establish that injuries that caused an inmates death occurred before the individual was in police custody then police brutality would definitely be ruled out.

              Forensic laboratories are vital for the forensic pathologists as they offer conducive venues to carry out necessary scientific testing. Of great importance to the forensic pathologist work is the physical evidence that is mostly found on the body. Such evidence could be in traces or in large amounts and it is of essence in providing important leads to the cause, mechanism as well as the manner of death. It is also important in enhancing the process of identifying people involved in acts that lead to death. (Eckert W, 1997). Physical evidence like hair, blood and semen can be found in either the body in question or in the crime scene and can be viewed as a scientific way that directly links the victims to the perpetrators. On presentation of accurate facts like on physical evidence by a forensic pathologist in a court of law, the suspects in question are encouraged to confess that they actually committed the said crimes. This ensures that justice prevails in a shorter and a less costly manner. Physical evidence is also important for the suspects of criminal acts that led to death especially those not linked to the evidence found as they are declared innocent. Physical evidence includes saliva, body tissues, drugs, semen as well as fibers. (Eckert W, 1997)

             Eckert W. suggests that forensic pathology is the oldest of all forensic sciences and that it was initially for the core process of solving problems relating to forensics. This has however taken a different angle as its importance in solving medicolegal cases has intensified. The role of the forensic toxicologist is to identify if there is any evidence or presence of poisons, drugs or alcohol in the body in question. Such evidence is applied in establishing if for instance a road accident was due to the driver driving while intoxicated by drugs or alcohol. The role of the forensic deontologists is to identify unknown teeth, jaws with their decedents. Their expertise comes in handy in cases that demand for bite mark investigations. As Eckert W. explains these specialists are used ‘in the analysis of oro-facial trauma which is linked to personal abuse and they can also be used in dental jurisprudence’. (Eckert W, 1997).

             The work of a forensic pathologist revolves around or is focused on the body in question as well as on the crime scene where he or she tries to find any evidence that would provide leads to finding the actual causes of death.

In the book, Forensic Pathology: Principles and Practice, Dolinak and others suggest that the role of the forensic pathologist is to respond to the queries that could arise in death cases not only in the present cases but also in future. To them, death is said to be homicide if another individual or rather a second party is intentionally responsible for it. Deaths caused by drunken driving are termed as homicide as the drivers in question are aware that it is unlawful to drink and drive but they defy such laws. In distinguishing suicide form accidental death forensic pathologists must take great caution. Death is said to be suicide when the individual in question willful ceases or rather terminate their lives. (Dolinak D, Matshes E, Lew E, 2005.).

  There are differences between the hospital autopsy and the forensic autopsy which is also referred to as medicolegal autopsy. The requirement of the consent of the next of kin is a requirement in the cases of hospital autopsy while for the forensic autopsy this is not required. (Dimaio V and  Dana S, 2006).  A major discrepancy exists regarding the objectives of the two autopsies, while the hospital autopsy confirms the causes of death and is used as a teaching tool the medicolegal autopsy tries to establish the causes of death and well documents the findings arrived at. It rules out the unsuspected causes of death. Unlike in the hospital autopsy where the identity of the victim is mostly known this is not the case for the medicolegal autopsies in fact it is at times the forensic pathologist’s role to carry out tests so as to positively identify the victims. (Dimaio V and  Dana S, 2006). In the medicolegal autopsies evidence is not only collected but also well preserve unlike in the hospital autopsies where this is not the case. Bodies in the hospital autopsies are preserved but in the medicolegal cases this is discouraged as it would interfere with the physical evidence thus distorting the findings found. Again, preservation could interfere with the toxicology of the body.

             This paper has by and large explained what forensic pathology is, the various forensic specialties it interacts with as well as the responsibilities of a forensic pathologist. Forensic pathology is very important especially for the role it plays in the criminal justice system. It links the medical field with the legal field and promotes human rights with its influence in advocating for occupational and environmental health. Provision of accurate evidence or findings ensures that those who are innocent are not condemned.


Cyril Wecht, John T. Rago, Benjamin E. Wecht. 2006. Forensic Science and

            Law: Investigative Applications in Criminal, Civil. CRC Press.

David Dolinak, Evan W. Matshes, Emma O. Lew. 2005. Forensic Pathology

 Principles and Practice. Academic Press.

Froede C. 2003. Handbook of Forensic Pathology. College of American


Vincent Dimaio and Suzanna Dana. 2001. Forensic Pathology. CRC Press

Vincent Dimaio and Suzanna Dana. 2006. Handbook of Forensic Pathology.

 CRC Press.

William G. Eckert. 1997. Introduction to Forensic Sciences. CRC Press.