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How should lawyers examine post mortem reports?

Watch Shreya Rastogi explain how lawyers can examine post mortem reports in their case and potential errors to watch out for.
In cases of suspicious deaths, investigations often require an autopsy to be conducted. An autopsy can provide investigative leads that can help identify the deceased, reveal possible causes of death, as well as aid in collecting evidence for further examination. From our previous lessons, we have understood the main principles governing autopsy, issues with determining the cause of death and the time since death, as well as understood the process of evidence collection and documentation. Most importantly, we have learned the limits of what a forensic pathologist can and cannot opine on. But how should lawyers apply these lessons practically?
Well, first and foremost, it is important to remember that like other forms of expert evidence, the conclusions in a post-mortem report are not facts, but the opinion of the expert based on their knowledge and expertise. Therefore, as a lawyer, you must examine the scientific basis of the conclusions drawn in the report to test its reliability. Prior to examining the report, it is important that you have access to all the relevant material. You should check if you have all the supporting material which will be required by another forensic pathologist to arrive at their independent opinion. This includes extensive notes, sketches and the photographs that should be taken by the forensic pathologist while conducting the post-mortem examination.
Sometimes this could also include histological results, which involve microscopic examination of tissues. If you find that your report lacks such supporting material, you can file an application in court to request for such material. This will enable you to engage with the report in a more meaningful way. Before you start assessing the merits of the report, it is important to ascertain the chronology of events leading up to the post-mortem procedure. First, when was the body discovered? In what circumstances was the body found and what was its condition? For instance, was the body found in an open place? Was it buried in soil or was it found under water?
Second, what were the ambient conditions at that time, such as temperature, humidity, etc.? Third, what kind of clothing was found on the body? Fourth, how was the body handled after its discovery? It is important to note that there may be events such as handlers dropping the body, improper storage, etc. that can happen after the discovery of the body, which can create artefacts that may be misinterpreted. Fifth, when was the body sent for post-mortem examination? Is there any explanation for the time since the discovery of the body and to when it was sent for examination? Next, you must ask what are the guidelines required to be followed by the forensic pathologist in this facility?
Is this facility adhering to the international standards. Further, you need to see who conducted the autopsy? Do they qualify as an expert under Section 45 of the Indian Evidence Act. Now when it comes to examining the autopsy report itself, you must keep the following questions in mind. First, as per the autopsy report, have both the external and internal examinations been carried out? Has the external and internal examination of the body been described with sufficient level of detail? Do the injuries observed during the external examination correlate with the observations made during internal examination? Second, what are the observations made by the forensic pathologist regarding the injuries? Remember, artefacts can mimic disease and injury.
Therefore, if an injury has been identified, there should be adequate explanation and material provided by the forensic pathologists to state that it is an injury and not an artefact. While dealing with external injuries, especially contusions or bruises, remember that injuries cannot be reliably aged. Colour change is not a reliable method for ageing injuries. You must also note that decomposition stages are highly variable and are dependent on multiple factors, such as temperature and humidity. Therefore, an opinion on time since death based on the body temperature, lividity, rigidity and signs of decomposition is highly subjective in nature and should be cautiously relied upon. Next, see, how was the cause of death determined in the report?
Remember, the cause of death cannot be conclusively determined. Forensic pathologists can arrive at wrong conclusions based on incorrect or insufficient information or by drawing wrong inferences from the information provided. Observations in the post-mortem report can also be sparse, and often there is no explanation between the conclusion drawn by the forensic pathologist and the findings of the post-mortem report. Therefore, as lawyers, it is important to check the link between the findings and the conclusions drawn in the autopsy report.

Now that you know the basic principles underlying post mortem examination, you may wonder how to examine such reports in your casework. In this video, Shreya Rastogi from Project 39A will discuss the key aspects that lawyers must consider while examining post mortem reports.

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Decoding Forensics for Legal Professionals

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