‘Every dead body is like a puzzle’
Dr Richard Shepherd tells us all about forensic pathology
Let’s be honest – although we’re shocked by the idea of bloody crimes and dead bodies, we’re also fascinated by them. Six million of us tuned in to watch Emilia Fox play crime-solver
Nikki Alexander in BBC One’s crime show Silent Witness and, if you scroll through the other channels, you’ll find a host of true-crime documentaries to binge-watch. There’s no denying that we like to delve into grim stories from the safety of our own living rooms.
But what’s it actually like being involved in these investigations and trying to find out exactly how a person died? For forensic pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd, performing postmortems to uncover the cause of death is how he spends his days. ‘Sometimes it can be pretty straightforward,’ he says. ‘But when it comes to unnatural causes, there is an element of detective work to figure out what actually went on.’
After a career spanning three decades and an incredible 23,000 cases, he’s now written a tell-all book. We caught up with him for a behind-thescenes look at the world of forensic pathology – and to discover what he’s learnt along the way.
Can you remember what first sparked your interest in this work?
When I was 13, my friend nicked a forensic pathology book off his dad’s bookcase and brought it into school as a dare. I think he wanted to scare everyone, but I was fascinated. The combination of science, medicine and detective work really excited me.
You’ve advised the producers of
Silent Witness – how accurate is the work that we see on screen?
They do a fantastic job at getting as much of the forensic pathology as accurate as possible. The mortuary they use was built to make it as realistic as it could be. Some of the ‘dead’ bodies you see on the slabs are actors acting and not just dummies. Where the programme does differ from the real-life job of a forensic pathologist is that, in the show, Emilia Fox and her team go out and interview suspects, which is something I’ve never done. Our job is to
assess the bodies, while the police do the investigating. But I also understand that the TV show has to create this overlap so they can tell these fantastic stories. It is fiction, after all.
What advice do you give them?
The show’s writers will get in touch to discuss storylines or possible causes of death. They’re keen to make sure that the processes at the crime scene and postmortem are accurate on set, from how to take a swab to how to hold a knife. Sometimes they have to change things for TV – for example, we always wear masks covering our face when we work and that doesn’t really work on screen. I understand that, but it still bugs me.
Your career certainly isn’t for everyone, why do you enjoy it?
Every dead body is like a puzzle to work out. Even if I think I know what’s happened, I have to put all the pieces together to properly understand what’s gone on. With every case, there’s that thrill and excitement of wondering where it might take me and how I’m going to sort it all out. It’s always so interesting – no two days are the same.
What are the initial things you look for when you arrive at the scene of a death?
When I first arrive I’ll get a briefing from the police of what they think happened. That guides what the team and I need to do next. The first stage is to take an overall look at the bigger picture to understand how things fit together. In fact, the actual body is often the last thing I look at. I’ll check for any obvious cause of death, take any samples or swabs that can’t wait until the mortuary and then put the body into the body bag.
When you perform a postmortem, do you have to detach emotionally?
No, it’s important to stay connected. When you’re cutting open a body, you have to acknowledge that this is a person who has lived and been loved. At the same time, I have to switch into professional mode because I have a job to do. I need to ensure I’m careful in my analysis, so that I can give evidence in court or tell the family what happened.
Why are we all so fascinated by grim crimes and the darker side of life?
We all have a curiosity about things that we can’t comprehend, like how can you murder someone? Watching shows like
Silent Witness allows us to explore all of these elements from a place of safety. I suppose it’s the same reason why
I’m so drawn to the job – except the mortuary is my place of safety!
You often present your findings in court. Do you find giving evidence stressful, as your testimony can be the difference between a guilty and not-guilty verdict?
It can be a lot of pressure because, as a pathologist, people trust you. But there are always grey areas. For example, we know the man has been shot, but from what angle? How far away? What gun was used? Did he shoot himself or did someone else shoot him? I’ve had cases where I thought someone was guilty, but the jury has said they aren’t. But that’s not in my control and I can’t voice that opinion. I just convey what I see to be the truth, then the rest is up to the jury.
What has being around death taught you about life?
It reminds you that life is fleeting, so enjoy it! I think I’m good at savouring the moment; taking the dogs for a walk or drinking beer in a pub garden on a summer’s day. We often take these little things for granted, but I’m aware that they are so precious.
‘The mortuary is my place of safety’
The cast of Silent Witness get down to business