By Roel Raymond
Dr. D.L Waidyaratne MD (USSR), MD (Forensic Science), DLM (Colombo) was recently inducted the 9th President of the College of Forensic Pathologists of Sri Lanka. Ceylon Today met with him to learn of the importance of forensic science in crime-solving, and the challenges faced by the medico-legal community.
Q: What are the basic functions of a forensic medical pathologist?
A: We assist with the administration of justice by conducting medical examinations on injuries sustained in accidents, from deliberate violence, rape, sexual abuse and torture. We also conduct post-mortem examinations, known as judicial autopsies, in cases of death due to violence, accidents and suicides or due to unknown causes. In essence, our work entails the scientific examination of both living and deceased human bodies. Our reports take into account the types and numbers of external and internal injuries, the category of hurt inflicted on the victim, our opinions regarding the weapon used and other related observations.
Q: How are forensic pathologists involved in criminal cases – are professionals present at every scene of crime, or are cases brought to you by the Police or the Court?
A: We are not required to be present at every scene of crime, although this is regrettable because the importance of judicial medical expertise in the early stages of the criminal investigation process is frequently overlooked by both the Police and the Judiciary.
In some instances, the police refers cases to us, in some instances the Court refers cases to us; there are provisions for both under the Code of Criminal Procedure and we are called to examine both victims and suspects.
Post-mortems are conducted on judicial orders based on applications for the same made by the police to the Magistrate Court or the Inquirer into Sudden Deaths (appointed by the Ministry of Justice) if foul play is suspected or, in the case of a sudden death in which there is no indication of violence.
Q: You spoke of the importance of judicial medical expertise in the early stages of the criminal investigation process. There is concern that crime scenes are contaminated and evidence compromised before the arrival of police and professionals in many cases. Is this true?
A: This is a weakness particular to our society; when a crime is committed instead of calling the police, people call each other and converge on the scene of the crime. This is because citizens are unaware of how important it is to maintain the integrity of the scene of crime until the arrival of the police. This ignorance can be addressed by the media, especially in the Sinhala and Tamil media. The police too can educate people on these issues. I feel there is a need for far more interaction on the part of the police with members of civil society.
This kind of social education should ideally be conducted in schools as well, but, as we know, our education system is geared to move from one examination to the other and does not target the overall development of the human being or the society he/she lives in.
Q: We hear that Forensic Pathologists are faced with numerous challenges. What are the most prominent of these?
A: Infrastructure development is imperative. We do not have even one centre for forensic clinical examination that has adequate facilities. For decades, we have functioned in government hospitals but these set-ups are primitive – the collection, storage and preservation of forensic biological samples are done with difficulty. There is a shortage in the regular supply of consumables such as specimen containers, jars and tubes and although we have relatively sufficient equipment for examinations, we are short of equipment needed for further examinations.
Our staff requirements too are crucial. We need laboratory technicians to process material obtained during examinations. We need nurses to assist with victim examinations. We need clerical support to ensure our reports and documents are stored properly. We need English typists and stenographers to write out our reports. We don’t have support in any of these components and are often compelled to do these tasks ourselves, and as you can imagine, it is a time consuming process.
Q: Is there any particular reason why forensic pathologists have been sidelined?
A: I feel that it is probably because our work does not directly aid the objectives of the Health Ministry. We fall under the purview of the Health Ministry and yet, our work leans more towards the criminal and justice systems and not the treatment of illness and diseases. This is perhaps why we receive step-motherly treatment from the Ministry.
Q: Can the data collected from your work help with the prevention?
A: Yes, the information we gather from autopsies can be used for prevention. Take for instance, how the seat-belt rules came about – autopsies found out that the ejection from a seat caused frequent death and that restricting a passenger to his seat could save his or her life. It was the same with helmets. Our country, however, doesn’t give sufficient attention to our findings.
Q: How many professionals make up your community of forensic medical practitioners?
A: There are only about 45 – 50 specialist forensic pathologists, of which some 28 work under the Ministry of Health, while the remainder lectures at the university forensic departments. Those that lecture also contribute in terms of service, but the work devolved to them is much less than the work taken on by the main 28 or so pathologists.
Q: Are you saying that this country only has the services of 45 to 50 forensic pathologists?
A: Yes. Of which only 28 are specialists. Actually it is worse when you look at it in terms of distribution; the Western Province has some 20 pathologists – Colombo alone accounts for 14 of them, while the Eastern Province has only 3, the North Eastern Province just 2, the Uva Province also 2 and the Northern Province has none….
Q: It is evident then that forensic pathologists are in need of serious support and investment?
A: Yes. If the government invested more in us they would be able to speed up the backlogs of cases in the justice system by expediting cases. Right now every time there is a delay on our part to file a report, cases are postponed at a massive cost and a colossal waste of money to the country. Justice delayed is Justice denied – this is the truth of the matter.
The administration of justice is an indicator of the level of civilization in society and the government can improve the reputation of this country by recognizing the importance of our work in crime-solving and by investing in forensic pathologists.
Q: You were called in to investigate in the deaths of the 17 aid workers attached to an INGO in Muttur under suspicious circumstances. What happened there?
A: I was called to Trincomalee from Anuradhapura because there was no consultant JMO there. It was two or three days after the incident when I went there and I found the bodies lying in the hospital mortuary; they called it a mortuary, but it was really just a room because the Trincomalee Hospital has no proper cold storage facility – and the bodies were putrefied, the stench unbearable, relatives and hordes of other people were crowding the area because of the controversy surrounding the deaths.
I recorded the external injuries as best as I could and dissected the bodies to look for internal injuries, but because of the putrefied state of the bodies, I could not locate any bullets. The Trincomalee Hospital did not have adequate autopsy facilities or post-mortem radiological investigation facilities and I could not conduct any further examinations. I could not even suggest moving the bodies to Colombo because families and other relatives were demanding the bodies be released to them. The situation was extremely complicated as the deceased were employees of a foreign NGO.
I was present during the second examination of the bodies too. The Government of Sri Lanka had invited the Australian Government to assist in the second examination and experts from that country were present and involved when the bodies were exhumed and re-examined. It was at this juncture that bullets were found in the bodies.
Q: Were there any allegations or suspicions that you and your team had not conducted the investigations properly?
A: No, it was concluded that there was no negligence on our part, but that the first examination was not complete due to a lack of facilities.
Q: How and why did you get involved in forensic science?
A: I was a clinical doctor for about 5 years before opting to work in this field. I did my
postgraduate studies in forensics and qualified as a practitioner in 1999. I have always been interested in the anatomy and that is essential for this kind of work. I feel happy when my examinations detect some kind of hidden criminal activity and helps establish the truth. This is of great importance to me.