‘I see dead people’

2013-08-20 12:00

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The Oscar Pistorius case was back in the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court on Monday (August 19 2013) – and experts predict forensic evidence will play a major part. Mandy Wiener meets the pathologists, forensic psychologists and crime scene investigators who solve the country’s most heinous crimes.

The trajectory of the bullet as it tears through skin and flesh. The detailed patterns of the congealed blood spattered across the scene. Fingerprints. Casings. Organ temperature. Rigor mortis. All clues, carefully scrutinised by forensic specialists as they piece together the puzzle of each crime they investigate.

From the pathologist who examines the body to the psychologist who is tasked with unearthing the potential motives, each cog in the forensic wheel contributes to solving a case. It’s CSI, without the Hollywood hype and glamour but with the reality of heaving caseloads and pungent smells.

Forensic pathologist Dr Johan Dempers’ bio on his Skype profile reads ‘I see dead people’, the famous quote from the 1999 thriller The Sixth Sense. As a principal specialist at Tygerberg Forensic Pathology Facility and at the University of Stellenbosch, the 44-year-old has more than a decade’s experience in performing autopsies and most of his days are spent in the vicinity of cadavers. Johan is boisterous, outgoing and his broad grin lights up his bearded face when he talks about his love for pathology.

‘I don’t prefer dead people to living people. There is a perception very often that pathologists don’t like working with patients and I don’t think anything can be further from the truth. Pathology tells us so much about why people act the way they do. It’s such a satisfying job but you have to dedicate your life to it.’

In a recent lecture at the University of Cape Town, head of the division of forensic pathology at UCT, Professor Lorna Martin, said she has always seen her role as ‘providing the medical and scientific understanding of death’, while news reports and crime stories ‘provide the emotional outlet’. Lorna said, ‘I believe in a scientific process. I believe I can give back to people and communities I interact with; and yes, like office humour, there’s always mortuary humour.’ Evidently, pathologists love their jobs.

Johan is one of just 50 qualified, working forensic pathologists attending to unnatural death cases in the entire country – which means he deals with about 500 cases a year. But his job does not solely comprise of post-mortems.

‘As you get more senior, you take on more supervisory responsibilities. I go to the mortuary, teach medical students and get subpoenaed quite regularly to go to court. Then there’s also the paperwork and giving opinions on medical legal cases.’

Part of the job involves going out to murder scenes to assist investigators with initial determinations. ‘The police often want us to comment on time of death and we might look at things like stomach contents, the stiffening of the body and the rate of body cooling. We have fancy thermometers for temperature readings that we superimpose onto charts. We can also draw eye fluid and test for potassium and other electrolytes.’

Johan has worked on a litany of high-profile cases and has consulted on countless others, such as the murder of UK honeymooner Anni Dewani, but for him it is the science that stands out in memorable cases.

‘The cases I do remember are the ones that posed a particular challenge and very often those are the ones that never got solved. I remember a case in Kuils River, when a woman was murdered. Her nipples and genitals were mutilated and she had long incisions in her thighs. She died from her throat being slit and so did her 6-year-old son. We were able to tell the police the exact instrument used to cut into the skin. We often comment on mechanisms of injury like that and lead the police in their investigation.’

While a pathologist’s job is rooted in the principles of medicine, a forensic psychologist employs a different type of science. Captain Elmarie Myburgh is the most experienced investigator in the South African Police Service’s Investigative Psychology Unit (IPU), with 16 years of profiling more than 50 serial killers under her belt.

Although she has degrees in psychology and criminology, Elmarie has chosen to fall under the investigators’ umbrella within her unit, simply because it’s more hands on. Over the years she has worked on solving cases such as the Wemmer Pan, Nasrec and Phoenix serial killers. Elmarie has also closely assisted internationally acclaimed crime fiction writer Deon Meyer with research on his books.

‘For a novelist, Elmarie is the perfect law enforcement source,’ Deon says. ‘She is very, very good at what she does. She knows just about everybody in the SAPS because she consults and trains nationally.

She understands the heart of a detective and the psyche of a criminal. But what makes her so exceptional is that she also reads crime fiction.’

Elmarie’s line of work sees her involved in intimate partner murders, muti murders and serial rapist cases. Her team works closely with pathologists, such as Johan, and other forensic experts who share a symbiotic relationship.

‘We have a very good relationship with all those people. The blood spatter obviously tells you what happened. If a person walks into a room and just shoots you, it’s to get rid of you as quickly as possible. If a person walks in and hits you with a hammer a few times and then strangles you, obviously there’s a lot more anger involved.

‘In the end everything fits together like a puzzle: the forensics on the crime scene, the method used, the wounds, was there rape or not, how long did the victim suffer before they died, why the victim was specifically chosen?

‘When I give training I say to the investigating officers, “Whatever you look for on the crime scene that has a physical value for DNA or pathology has a psychological value to us”.’ Elmarie also chooses to attend autopsies as often as possible, to get a better grasp of cases.

The 42-year-old cop has never been married and doesn’t have children, but is reluctant to admit that her personal life has suffered because of her commitment to her work – although she acknowledges the sustained trauma of dealing with violence and death can have a cumulative effect.

‘Years ago I realised I’m in too deep. One case specifically got to me – a serial killer with seven victims of six, seven years old. There was also a case of a girl who was attacked in her home. She was raped, there was a helluva fight, he had beaten her to a pulp. It was gruesome. That one was a bit too much for me. I dreamt about it, when I closed my eyes I thought about it.’

Elmarie says her commander, Brigadier Gerhard Labuschagne PhD, who heads up the IPU, ensures staff cope with the trauma they encounter daily. She also manages her own emotions. ‘I very seldom take cases back home. I do not want the dockets and the photos in my house. If I have to, I read something else before I go to bed so there’s another thought in my mind.’

She does spend hours watching reality crime TV shows, though. ‘It’s all I watch. You pick up things you can use.’ But she is scathing of the popular CSI series and says she stopped watching it after witnessing an investigator licking a skeleton in a desert. ‘It’s just totally ridiculous how they work. Who on earth would do that?’

It is a criticism strongly shared by Johan. ‘It is a fallacy that all labs function like CSI does. CSI is very clever – it is based completely in reality. They have two forensic pathologists as advisors, but they solve cases by using many different modalities. There is no lab in the world where this would happen together at the same time. CSI solves a crime in two days and it portrays their lab as having all the resources. That’s where it’s unrealistic. Plus, unlike their forensic pathologists, I don’t carry a gun!’ he laughs.

Advances in technology have had a significant impact on the work done by forensic specialists in recent times. Simple developments such as digital cameras and laptop computers speed up investigations. Techniques such as facial reconstruction are used on skeletal remains to identify the gender, race and age of murder victims.

Johan says the greatest advance in his field has been in imaging modalities, or X-rays, most notably the South African-manufactured Lodox machine, initiated by Emeritus Prof Deon Knobel, which recently featured on medical drama Grey’s Anatomy.

‘We use the Lodox to scan bodies and to find bullets,’ Johan says. In fact, in a research paper, Professor of Forensic Pathology at the University of Leicester, Guy Rutty, suggests that the point may come when such new technology will see invasive autopsies no longer being necessary.

Both Elmarie and Johan are adamant South Africa compares admirably with the rest of the world, but they are critical of red tape and bureaucracy. Professor Martin points to the capacity of laboratories in the country as one of the biggest stumbling blocks. ‘We rely on laboratories to give us answers. I received a call the other day from a mother of a young man who died unexpectedly at 24. I’m still waiting for his toxicology report – three years later. It can sometimes take up to six years to receive a report back.’

Crime scene investigator Cobus Steyl at Forensic Ballistic Services in Durban has 21 years’ experience analysing and interpreting evidence on crime scenes. He studies tyre imprints, footwear identification and does blood spatter analysis, but his specialty is ballistics.

Cases that have passed over his desk include the 2005 murder of Stellenbosch student Inge Lotz and the current case of the Griekwastad family murders in Kimberley. Steyl is one of just two private ballistics experts in the country.

He is full of praise for the capacity of local state employed specialists, but says he is concerned about the volume of trained skills leaving the country. ‘State departments have the latest equipment but a lot of qualified people work for a small salary. Often they’ll leave for the US or UK where they will earn three or four times more.’

Many forensic specialists point to the Inge Lotz case as a seminal moment in forensics in the country. Her boyfriend and murder accused Fred van der Vyver’s family spent millions on international forensics experts who discredited the work done by the SAPS. Fred was acquitted.

Cobus, who spent several weeks working on that case, says the murder trial of Paralympic star Oscar Pistorius is also likely to come down to forensic work.

‘It’s going to play a vital role. We’ll see the full case unfold when the trial starts. The forensic aspect is of cardinal importance. How many shots went through the door? What is the angle of those shots? Where did the cartridge cases land? What other blood spatter is there in the bathroom? The drip trails and cast-off patterns will tell a story – has somebody bleeding been carried? All of that will eventually place weight on one side and then there will be a version from the accused.’

Elmarie is part of the police team investigating the case and has visited the scene of the crime but isn’t allowed to talk about it at all. Johan agrees the forensics will be absolutely crucial.

‘There are lots of questions surrounding the number of shots fired, and whether there was an intermediate target like the bathroom door. There are facts in the case that have not been for public consumption, which the public will find out when the court case takes place.’ He insists pathologists don’t share war stories over beers in the bar and he has no inside knowledge about the case.

The work of all the forensic specialists in all cases will come under scrutiny in a court of law. It takes resilience, persistence and determination to withstand that kind of pressure, but predominantly it is a passion for the work that is crucial.

‘We have had big burly guys who say “I can do this” and they cry like babies within a week,’ says Johan. ‘Then we’ve had girls who don’t even make a squeak and they turn out to be some of the best forensic pathologists. It’s about persevering to find the evidence. Sometimes you know there’s something you’re missing and you just have to face your frustrations until you find that last piece of evidence.’

Ultimately, it is the evidence that will solve the crime.

Mandy Wiener is an investigative journalist at Eyewitness News and the author of the award-winning Killing Kebble – An Underworld Exposed. Together with fellow journalist Barry Bateman, Mandy signed a book deal to write Behind The Door: The Oscar and Reeva Story, which will be published by Pan Macmillan when Oscar Pistorius’s trial for killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, is over. 

Searching for clues

Forensic science All scientific disciplines that contribute to legal investigation. Includes disciplines such as fingerprint analysis, ballistics, chemistry, etc.

Forensic pathology is a specialisation field in medicine and deals with the determination of the cause of death.

Forensic pathology officer A trained forensic pathology assistant. Performs preliminary death scene investigation, body retrieval and autopsy dissection.

Autopsy Process of meticulous dissection of the body to ascertain the cause of death.

Rigor mortis Stiffening of the body a few hours after death because of changes in the contractile elements of the muscles.

Infarction (infarct for short) Cell death in tissue or an organ. A consequence of, among other things, decreased oxygen supply to the cells. In a heart attack: myocardial (heart muscle) infarction (cell death).

Post-mortem interval The time elapsed between death and the post-mortem examination. Used to determine time of death in certain cases.

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