Friday, 21 September 2007

Medicolegal misconceptions

The public is exposed to a wealth of forensic pathology in the media, particularly in TV programmes such as Silent Witness (UK) and CSI. However, these representations are rarely accurate.

Dr Charles Petty identified popular medicolegal misconceptions (the 'devil's dozen') in an article in 1971;

  • that the time of death can be precisely determined by the examination of the body
  • that the autopsy always yields the cause of death
  • that the autopsy can properly be carried out without a 'history'
  • that the autopsy is over when the body leaves the autopsy room
  • that embalming will not obscure the effects of trauma and disease
  • that only true and suspected homicide victims need examination
  • that the cause and manner of death are the only results of the autopsy
  • that any pathologist is qualified
  • that the autopsy must be immediate
  • that the poison is always detected by the toxicologists
  • that all physicians are good death investigators
  • that the medicolegal autopsy is criminally or prosecution oriented
These are still valid misconceptions today, again illustrating the fact that 'nothing is new under the sun', and that forensic practitioners will always be struggling to disabuse the police and others involved in the administration of justice that forensic pathology does not provide all of the answers in any investigation.

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