De­tec­tives of the de­ceased on how they de­cide if a death has taken place at the hands of another

Deputy State Pathol­o­gist Linda Mul­li­gan is one of a four-per­son team tasked with ex­am­in­ing the ‘silent wit­nesses’ whose deaths have re­sulted from crime

The Irish Times - - Front Page - Conor Gal­lagher

Dr Linda Mul­li­gan does not seem like the type of per­son who per­forms au­top­sies for a liv­ing. She’s warm; friendly too.

When asked what at­tracted her to the job, she says that she likes “puz­zles”.

“I like the whole process of the ex­am­i­na­tion from start to fin­ish – find­ing all the tiny bits of ev­i­dence and putting them to­gether,” she ex­plains.

Dur­ing her time in med­i­cal school she was unusual among her class­mates be­cause she pre­ferred to work with the dead rather than the liv­ing; to solve crimes in­stead of di­ag­nos­ing dis­eases.

A child of the 1980s, she watched episodes of the Glaswe­gian de­tec­tive se­ries Tag­gart and its more cere­bral Ox­ford-based coun­ter­part, In­spec­tor Morse.

Mul­li­gan was also in­flu­enced by Dr John Har­bi­son, who for many years was Ire­land’s only State pathol­o­gist. For decades, Har­bi­son’s ar­rival at a crime scene, dressed in a tweed suit and deer­stalker hat, was a reg­u­lar fea­ture of the evening news.

“He was al­most an in­sti­tu­tion,” she re­calls. “The work he did, for one man cov­er­ing the whole coun­try, was in­cred­i­ble.” Near the end of his ca­reer in the early 2000s, Har­bi­son was ex­am­in­ing 200 bod­ies a year.

Now the work is shared be­tween four doc­tors, in­clud­ing Mul­li­gan and the State Pathol­o­gist, Marie Cas­sidy.

Every year about 30,000 peo­ple die in Ire­land. In the ma­jor­ity of cases the cause of death is clear and the most that is needed is con­fir­ma­tion by the coro­ner be­fore a fu­neral can take place. But in a tiny pro­por­tion, be­tween 200 and 300, the death is judged to be sus­pi­cious.

This is where Mul­li­gan and her col­leagues come in. The process be­gins with one of the coun­try’s 39 lo­cal coroners call­ing in the State Pathol­o­gist to de­cide if a death looks like it may have taken place at the hands of another.

Firstly, a de­ci­sion will be made whether a pathol­o­gist should go to the scene, or if they should wait for the body to be brought to the State Pathol­ogy Lab­o­ra­tory for an au­topsy.

“In a lot of cases it might not be nec­es­sary to at­tend the scene or it might not be lo­gis­ti­cally pos­si­ble. But valu­able ev­i­dence can be gath­ered from the scene. If blunt force trauma is in­volved it can be very, very use­ful to see po­ten­tial causes of the in­juries,” says Mul­li­gan.

Get­ting to the scene is not al­ways a sim­ple task. In a re­cent case where re­mains were found in an iso­lated, moun­tain­ous area, the pathol­ogy team had to use a drone equipped with a cam­era to ex­am­ine the scene.

“It means I didn’t have to tramp through the moun­tains and go through a swamp. Tech­nol­ogy like that can be very, very good when it’s ap­plied prop­erly.”

Blood splat­ters

Other forms of tech­nol­ogy have proven equally use­ful: 360-de­gree cam­eras can cre­ate a com­plete 3D view of the crime scene, en­abling in­ves­ti­ga­tors to de­ter­mine the di­rec­tion and spread of blood splat­ters, for ex­am­ple, and more.

Un­til last year the bod­ies of those who died in sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances in Dublin were brought to a small clus­ter of pre­fab­ri­cated build­ings on the grounds of the Dublin Fire Bri­gade Train­ing Cen­tre in Marino. The lab­o­ra­tory has since moved into more per­ma­nent sur­round­ings – a con­verted Garda Sta­tion in White­hall.

The new fa­cil­ity is pleas­ant, al­most too much so given the work car­ried out daily within. The build­ing’s art deco fa­cade and in­te­ri­ors, com­plete with brass ban­is­ters and beau­ti­ful tile work, are a strange con­trast to the ster­ile, stain­less steel sur­faces of the post­mortem rooms.

By the side of the build­ing, there is a door that is big­ger than the oth­ers. This is where the bod­ies are brought, be­fore they are wheeled into a re­frig­er­ated room.

The re­frig­er­ated room looks ex­actly as they do in de­tec­tive se­ries. The bod­ies are kept on slid­ing slabs in hor­i­zon­tal fridges. A freezer stands in the corner that holds still uniden­ti­fied re­mains, of­ten for a long time. There is usu­ally about one body in there at any one time, Mul­li­gan says.

Some fridges are big­ger than oth­ers. Some of them are highly-ex­pen­sive bariatric fridges used to store the bod­ies of obese peo­ple, or the con­torted re­mains of those killed in fires.

When The Ir­ish Times vis­ited there were no sus­pi­cious death cases in the build­ing; a rar­ity dur­ing a year that has seen the bloody Hutch/Ki­na­han gang­land feud, which has claimed 12 lives to date, con­tinue.

“We’ve been ex­tremely quiet,” Mul­li­gan says, be­fore adding with a smile, “I sup­pose that’s a good thing for the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion.”

Most ex­am­i­na­tions take less than a week. Later, the re­mains are handed over to the fam­ily. How­ever, the han­dover can take longer if a sus­pect is in cus­tody as they are en­ti­tled to ask for a sec­ond post-mortem to be car­ried out.

“It’s very dif­fer­ent to the UK. In the UK bod­ies can be kept for weeks. Here it’s a lot quicker,” she says.

The for­mal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a vic­tim by the fam­ily is one of the more dif­fi­cult parts of the job, but the new home in White­hall for the State Pathol­o­gist has made things slightly eas­ier. No longer does a fam­ily mem­ber have to walk into a cold room full of fridges to iden­tify their loved one.

In­stead, they look through a cur­tained win­dow into a spe­cially built view­ing room which con­tains the body. Be­fore the fam­ily comes in the tech­ni­cians do their best to make the de­ceased pre­sentable.

Front line

The tech­ni­cians, prop­erly known as anatom­i­cal pathol­ogy tech­ni­cians or APTs, take the lead in deal­ing with fam­i­lies.

“They’re the guys on the front line with the fam­i­lies in terms of deal­ing with grief. They’re very im­por­tant,” says Mul­li­gan.

The fam­i­lies get to talk to Mul­li­gan and her col­leagues face-to-face at the in­quest. Time is put aside to try to an­swer every ques­tion a rel­a­tive might have about their loved one’s death. Some­times not every ques­tion can be an­swered, but every ef­fort is made.

“Death in­ves­ti­ga­tion in Ire­land is some­thing that, un­less you have per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, no­body re­ally knows any­thing about it. I think it’s im­por­tant that com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the peo­ple is very open on th­ese types of is­sue.”

Ad­join­ing the cold room and view­ing gallery are the post­mortem rooms. Mul­li­gan in­sists on go­ing in first to make sure the rooms are “clean”, as she puts it. She means that she wants to make sure that there are no corpses present. On the right is the room for non-sus­pi­cious deaths. Two metal slabs stand in the mid­dle; the floor slopes down slightly to a drain.

On the left is the sus­pi­cious deaths’ ex­am­i­na­tion room. This con­tains one ta­ble. There is logic be­hind hav­ing this as a sep­a­rate room. What hap­pens in here is li­able to be picked over by de­fence lawyers look­ing for signs of con­tam­i­na­tion which could af­fect the re­sults of an au­topsy. There­fore, it has to be kept foren­si­cally clean.

It is also big­ger. Dur­ing an au­topsy it will ac­com­mo­date pathol­o­gists, Garda pho­tog­ra­phers and tech­ni­cal ex­am­in­ers. In­ves­ti­gat­ing de­tec­tives will take their places in a sep­a­rate view­ing room. A tough place for an in­ex­pe­ri­enced garda, I sug­gest.

“They’re all very pro­fes­sional; they’re all ex­tremely good at what they do. It’s a clin­i­cal process, it’s sci­en­tific. It can be trau­ma­tis­ing some­times but most of the time we’re all job-fo­cused,” Mul­li­gan says.

“It’s the same when you’re a doc­tor. You have to main­tain the clin­i­cal de­tach­ment. You have to go in there, col­lect the ev­i­dence, get a cause of death and maybe help the fam­ily get some an­swers.”

There was one au­topsy, she re­calls, where the Garda pho­tog­ra­pher did not tell any­one that it was his first case.

“He had to leave for a bit of air at one point. Now I al­ways ask some­one if it is their first case,” says Mul­li­gan.

This is where sus­pi­cious deaths from Dublin and Wick­low are han­dled. For deaths in other parts of the coun­try the pathol­o­gists usu­ally have to travel to the lo­cal hospi­tal to con­duct the post­mortem there.

The ex­am­i­na­tion it­self takes place in a highly reg­u­lated se­quence. First the pathol­o­gists col­lect trace ev­i­dence from the body and clothes. Swabs are then taken from the oral cav­ity and in­ti­mate ar­eas. “Ev­ery­thing is metic­u­lously pho­tographed and doc­u­mented as we pro­ceed through the ex­am­i­na­tion. It’s just like you see on TV.”

‘‘ You have to main­tain the clin­i­cal de­tach­ment. You have to go in there, col­lect the ev­i­dence, get a cause of death and maybe help the fam­ily get some an­swers

Gun­shot wound

Next is an ex­ter­nal ex­am­i­na­tion to checks for in­juries and marks. Mul­li­gan says at this stage it is vi­tal not to make as­sump­tions even if the cause of death seems to be ob­vi­ous, for ex­am­ple a gun­shot wound.

“At the end of the day we are doc­tors and th­ese are our pa­tients. You have to ex­am­ine the pa­tient thor­oughly, to make sure there were no other med­i­cal con­di­tions that could have been a fac­tor.”

There are other rea­sons for be­ing thor­ough. “If some­one comes in with a gun­shot wound and we find a can­cer or a tu­mour, that may have im­pli­ca­tions for the fam­ily. Some­thing like that can be very, very im­por­tant. That’s why we do ev­ery­thing rou­tinely in every case. To make sure we don’t miss any­thing.”

Next is the in­ter­nal exam. The pathol­o­gist will check for signs of dis­ease which may have contributed to death be­fore tak­ing blood and urine sam­ples which are checked for traces of drugs and poi­sons.

Lastly the or­gans are dis­sected and tiny pieces are put onto slides for mi­cro­scopic anal­y­sis in a lab­o­ra­tory on-site. Through this, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors can de­tect other more sub­tle fac­tors which may have contributed to death.

Tech­nol­ogy has im­proved many as­pects of the post­mortem exam. New test­ing tech­niques means re­sults are pro­duced faster and the grow­ing field of foren­sic ra­di­ol­ogy, es­sen­tially the study of the X-rays of dead peo­ple, is mak­ing it eas­ier to an­a­lyse bone dam­age.

“It’s very use­ful to look for bal­lis­tics. But they can also be use­ful to look for frac­tures and other in­juries we might not see at post­mortem ex­am­i­na­tion.”

Changed lit­tle

But the au­topsy it­self has changed lit­tle over the years, she says. “I don’t think it will change and I don’t think it should change. It’s vi­tal to see both in­side and out­side the body to come to a find­ing.”

Mul­li­gan is unusual in that she is only the per­son, aside from John Har­bi­son, to have trained as a foren­sic pathol­o­gist in Ire­land. Ev­ery­one else had to come from abroad or travel abroad to train. Marie Cas­sidy is from Scot­land.

As Ire­land has no do­mes­tic train­ing regime in the field, Mul­li­gan had to com­plete two diplo­mas through UK col­leges while learn­ing on the job in the lab. She is hope­ful that fu­ture re­cruits will not find it so dif­fi­cult to get into the field.

“The process for set­ting up a do­mes­tic train­ing course is al­most com­plete. So hope­fully soon we will have a train­ing post here.”

Mul­li­gan has a clear love for the job, de­spite its some­times dis­tress­ing na­ture. Asked about its down­sides, her an­swer is sur­pris­ing bland.

“The in­ter­de­part­men­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions can be daunt­ing. When we come out of an au­topsy ex­am­i­na­tion ev­ery­body is look­ing for an­swers but we might not nec­es­sar­ily be able to give them un­til our in­ves­ti­ga­tions are back. I get very dis­ap­pointed that we can’t help more im­me­di­ately.

“I know the gen­eral pub­lic think it’s go­ing to be all the hor­rors we see and all that, but I of­ten think we wouldn’t be in this job if we didn’t have the clin­i­cal de­tach­ment to deal with that.

“Cer­tain cases will af­fect you more than oth­ers,” she adds. “But that’s hu­man na­ture. If some cases aren’t go­ing to af­fect you then maybe you shouldn’t be in the job.”

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: BRENDA FITZSI­MONS; NIALL CAR­SON/PA WIRE; ALAN BETSON

Dr Linda Mul­li­gan at the State Pathol­o­gist’s of­fice on Grif­fith Av­enue. Above: Dr Marie Cas­sidy.

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