The forensic pathologist

In all cases in which a death is suspicious, the body will be examined by a forensic pathologist. His or her goal is to find out the cause of death, if possible the time of death if unknown, and any other information which may be of use in determining the circumstances of the death, and if the death was violent the use of any weapon and details about the attacker such as height and weight. The pathologist will also look for anything on the body which could identify the attacker, such as DNA material from blood, semen, saliva or skin.

The pathologist will also obtain samples taken from the body which will be treated and mounted on slides to be examined under a microscope. This process is called histology, or histopathology. As this area has become increasingly specialised, in some cases the examination of the slides will be carried out by a specialist histopathologist. The findings of the histopathologist may point to the manner of the death, be it as a result of failure of any of the organs, loss of blood, or the possibility of poisoning.

Pathologists - the second post mortem

If the murder lawyers are retained by the suspect early enough, they should instruct a defence pathologist to consider any of the findings of the police or Crown pathologist. This is not just a case of going through the state pathologist's report. A second post mortem is necessary. Permission will usually need to be obtained from the coroner, but time is of the essence because the family of the deceased will usually want the body returned to them quickly for burial or cremation.

The goal of the second post mortem is not just for the defence pathologist to check the conclusions of the police pathologist, but also to consider whether any alternative explanations are possible. Because the defence pathologist will not have prior knowledge of the case, it is important that the murder solicitors ask that certain possibilities which may be of assistance are explored by the expert. It is usual for somebody from the defence legal team to also attend the second post mortem so that a first hand view of the situation can be taken by the murder lawyer.

Neuropathologists and the brain - nearly always one specific expert

In cases where there has been a head injury or if there is any doubt about cause of death, the brain of the deceased will be sent by the police's pathologist to a neuropathologist, who is a specialist in the analysis of brains. This expert will look at whether the death or cause of death was influenced by the existence of any diseases or underlying conditions suffered by the deceased, and for any chemical clues as to the circumstances of the death. The results of a neuropathology report can be particularly important in cases involving suffocation, head injuries caused by beating or stamping, and infant death cases. For this reason, the murder solicitors should always try to instruct a neuropathologist for the defence. There have sadly been too many examples in recent years of police-instructed neuropathologists giving evidence leading to wrongful murder convictions. These cases are a constant reminder to never just accept the prosecution evidence at face value.


Toxicologists in murder cases can be of great importance. Their job is to look at the effects of any chemicals on the body. The defence should always try to instruct their own toxicologist to look for the presence of any chemicals on the body. These chemicals could include alcohol or illegal drugs. If such things are found it could have a bearing on the circumstances of the death, either as a potential cause, or because they could have had an affect on the deceased's behaviour which supports what the client says about what happened, which may be especially important in a case where the issue is self defence.

If you or a family member are worried about an investigation or prosecution for murder or manslaughter, please call us and speak to one of our specialist murder lawyers throughout the UK. We are always happy to talk.


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