‘Ev­ery dead body is like a puz­zle’

Dr Richard Shep­herd tells us all about foren­sic pathol­ogy

Prima (UK) - - Contents -

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

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