The pathology section provides a forensic pathology service to the state of South Australia on behalf of the state Coroner. In criminal matters, the service is also utilised by the South Australian Police for investigative purposes.
In general the role of the pathology section is to:
- determine the cause of death
- contribute to the determination of circumstances of death
- identify the origin of skeletal remains.
The major activities of the pathology section associated with this role are:
- the admission, storage and release of deceased persons
- the conduct of pathology reviews
- the conduct of autopsies
- the preparation of histopathology slides
- the anthropological examination of skeletal remains
- the preparation of reports for the state Coroner.
Video: working in forensic pathology
Forensic pathologists conduct post-mortem examinations at the request of the state Coroner to determine the cause of death. An autopsy seeks to discover the events that led to a person’s death and the circumstances surrounding the cause of death. The results from these investigations are used in preparing reports for the Coroner and providing opinions about the cause of a person’s death.
The pathology section coordinates further investigations of samples collected from a deceased person at post-mortem. During the autopsy major organs of the body are removed for examination. Samples of blood, urine, liver, stomach contents and vitreous fluid are taken for scientific analysis to test for the presence of drugs or poisons (see toxicology for more specific details). Tissue samples are collected, prepared and stained for examination under the microscope (histology) in order to identify the presence of disease.
The autopsy also provides an opportunity to address other issues about a death by the recovery of trace evidence from the body of a deceased person that might help assist in corroborating the circumstances of their death. This may identify persons of interest or reveal their association with the deceased. The trace evidence may include swabs for DNA or the removal of unexplained hair and fibres etc. These samples are then analysed by specialist scientists in these areas (see biology / evidence recovery and chemistry / trace evidence).
Material may be submitted for examination that is of suspected human origin. This may take the form of skeletal material (bones) or soft tissues (skin, muscles or organs). The pathology section examines the material and determines whether the samples are human or non-human in origin. If the samples are human then further investigations are made to determine if they are recent or historic deaths. This field of science is called forensic anthropology.
All tissue samples taken at post mortem have slides prepared for microscopy, that is sectioned on the microtome, stained and coversliped. The pathologist will advise of any other special stains that may be required.
When people cannot be identified through traditional means (visual identification, fingerprints, dental records or DNA), bones can provide information on sex, age, stature (height) and race of a person.
The role of the forensic anthropologist is in the identification of:
- missing people
- recently deceased
- incomplete or partial remains
- disaster victim identification.
The examination involves a visual inspection (macroscopic) of the bones or other material received. Distinguishing human from non-human bones may be straightforward for complete or nearly complete bones, however if the remains are poorly preserved or fragmented this identification may be more difficult. Human bones can generally be macroscopically distinguished from non-human bones on the basis of morphology (shape), size and texture.