A pathologist may only play a fleeting part in your story or they may well be the main character but if you don’t know enough about how they become one, what their relationship is to a criminal investigation or what they do to assist that investigation, you may well be getting them and your story wrong.
Read on to find what you need to know to get them right in your story.
A pathologist (sometimes referred to as a forensic pathologist) is a medically qualified doctor, registered by the General Medical Council, licensed to practice and educated at post-graduate level in histopathology (the study of the effects of disease on the body) and forensic pathology.
Those suitably qualified apply to be registered with The Home Office Pathology Delivery Board and if successful are designated as “A member of the Home Secretary’s Register of Forensic Pathologists”.
Once registered, they must work within ‘group practices’ comprising at least three forensic pathologists who jointly provide post-mortem services within a defined geographical region. The group practices must provide a forensic post-mortem service 24 hours a day and 365 day a year for their region. The pathologists don’t work set 9 to 5 hours as the number of cases seen each day varies throughout the country, however the latest protocol agreed with the Home Office limits the working period to 120 hours in any 14 day period.
Many forensic pathologists are self-employed but some are employed, full or part-time in the National Health Service (NHS) or University hospitals.
When the police request a pathologist to attend the scene of a suspicious death, they are ‘briefed’ as to the circumstances of the case by the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) or their representative. Together with the SIO, crime scene investigators and forensic scientists, they agree a strategy for approaching the body, collecting trace evidence from and around it and ultimately the recovery of the body from the scene.
At the scene, the pathologist will examine the body, noting its disposition, the surroundings in which it lies and the presence of injuries that can be seen without disturbing the body or the scene. Many pathologists also supervise recovery of the body by crime scene investigators and funeral directors.
They carry out the post-mortem in an approved mortuary (usually attached to an NHS hospital). Their examination is directed towards answering the general and specific questions about the cause of death and providing any other information that may help progress the criminal investigation e.g. where someone clearly dies of a gunshot wound to the head, the contents of the victim’s stomach may help identify the time they last ate and what it was they consumed. Such information may help narrow down the investigative time parameters and lead to the place where they last ate.
The external examination of the body may take several hours due to its immense significance in a suspicious death post-mortem. Every organ and body cavity is examined in detail. Samples of organs and injuries are taken for microscopy and samples of body fluids are retained for toxicology. Each stage of the examination is documented and photographed. All significant findings, both positive and negative are recorded. The subsequent report is made available to the SIO, Coroner and defence lawyers. The pathologist may then have to attend court to give evidence at the trial of the accused.
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