In all cases in which a death is treated as suspicious, the body will be examined by a forensic pathologist. His or her goal is to find out the cause of death, the time of death if unknown, any other information which may be of use in determining the circumstances of the death - and if the death was violent they will look at the possible use of any weapons and details about the attacker such as their 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.
Experienced murder lawyers will also be aware that the pathologist will be able to obtain samples taken from the body to be examined under a microscope. This process is called histology, or histopathology. The outcome of this process may be that more is known about how the death happened, whether it is as a result of organ failure, loss of blood, or even the possibility of poisoning.
The second post mortem
If the murder lawyers are retained by the suspect early enough, they should consider bringing in a defence pathologist to review any of the findings of the police or Crown pathologist. This is not just a case of going through the pathologist's report. 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 for the defence pathologist to check the conclusions of the police pathologist and 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 defence murder lawyers ask that certain possibilities which may be of assistance are explored by the expert. It is not unusual for somebody from the defence team to 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
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. It is vital that specialist murder lawyers are able to consider and understand this evidence.
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 where the need arises. 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 all murder lawyers 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 murder lawyers should always consider instructing their own toxicologist to look for the presence of any chemicals on the body, should it be appropriate. 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 affected 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.