Damning autopsy on cops' work

Sloppy CSI procedures are ruining cases

28 November 2017 - 06:17 By Graeme Hosken
A mortuary van at the Carletonville Forensic Pathology Services.
A mortuary van at the Carletonville Forensic Pathology Services.
Image: Alon Skuy

Only a fraction of autopsies at South Africa's busiest mortuary are attended by police, seriously jeopardising the state's chance of successful prosecutions in thousands of cases of shooting deaths and sexual violence murders.

Research by the Wits health sciences faculty has revealed an alarming trend in which officers fail to adhere to police regulations on attending murder autopsies.

Two recently published research papers looked at autopsies conducted at the Hillbrow mortuary in 2016 on victims of sexual violence and gunshots.

Research by Khanyisile Sibiya shows that when women were killed in non-sexual murders, officers attended less than 3% of autopsies. When women died in sexual attacks, police were absent from 82% of autopsies.

A wound that might look like a stab wound could actually be a gunshot wound.
Gerard Labuschagne

Part of Sibiya's research objective was to see if police prioritised cases of women murdered in sexual attacks.

In gunshot murder autopsies, research by Jessica Hamman showed officers attended fewer than 7% of postmortems (12 out of 188).

No female gunshot victims' autopsies were attended.

Hamman's research looked at how ballistic evidence was collected, and whether it was collected by police, forensic officers trained to dissect bodies, or forensic pathologists trained to determine the cause of death.

She said that, in five autopsies she looked at, police had failed to attend postmortems. Ballistic evidence, despite being retrieved by pathologists, had never been collected by police.

Research also showed documents recording information at crime scenes were seldom filled in correctly.

For weeks the police have ignored questions from The Times on what the police instructions are for the attendance of autopsies, who is responsible for collecting vital evidence from bodies and whether members are held to account for not attending postmortems.

With South Africa's rate of murder and crimes against women among the world's highest, the country's leading forensic pathologists, the SA Medical Research Council and police crime scene experts say the failure to attend postmortems carries potentially dire consequences for murder prosecutions.

Jeanine Vellema, who heads the Wits Clinical Department of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, said it was "very worrying".

"While we understand that they are overburdened by caseloads, not attending can potentially jeopardise the outcome of a court case if certain evidence is not collected. As forensic pathologists we simply don't know what evidence might be relevant to a case.''

She said for years they had been working on a memorandum of understanding to force police to attend autopsies.

"It's meant to be completed soon, but we don't know when exactly."

Gerard Labuschagne, former head of the SAPS Investigative Psychology Unit, who oversaw the research while in the police force, said when a death was suspected to have been from a criminal act or possible suicide, it was essential that police attend autopsies to convey information from the crime scene and obtain information about the cause of death.

"A wound that might look like a stab wound could actually be a gunshot wound. If you do not know there was a gun involved you would never know to do gunshot residue tests or look for a firearm.

"The Western Cape Health Department has a memorandum of understanding with the police, which says detectives must attend the autopsy, while the national detective learning programme - which is the detectives' current training manual - prescribes how officers should attend to postmortems."

He said that, as well as police not attending autopsies, there were concerns about the control over exhibits in between the autopsy and police collecting the evidence.

"If police attended the autopsy, officers could immediately take control of the exhibit and submit it to the necessary police laboratory for testing. This would eliminate any potential chain of custody issues which could arise."

Rachel Jewkes, the MRC's executive scientist for research strategy, said research showed that police who attended autopsies had far better insight into what happened to the victim.

"Failing to attend means important evidence needed to secure a conviction might be missed."