Forensic pathology has taken hold of conversations as numerous questions arose with the death of 23-year-old flight attendant Christine Dacera, who was found lifeless at a Makati hotel room on New Year’s Day.
To know more about this science discipline, here are a few facts about forensic pathology and what is its role in crime investigations.
1. Forensic science vs forensic pathology
Forensic science is used in knowing and studying the evidence to solve the case.
“Ang forensic kasi ang definition niya is ang application ng science to legal matters,” said forensic pathologist Dr. Ma. Cecilia Lim.
Forensic pathology, meanwhile, is a discipline under forensic science.
Within forensic pathology, corpses are studied and examined to know what happened to the body and the structural changes that occurred such as wounds on the body, the cause of death, and the way the person died.
To know the time and manner of death of a person, forensic pathologists conduct an examination that looks into the body’s condition, discoloration, and temperature.
“Gumagawa kami ng external examination,” said Lim. “Tinitignan naming ’yung mga itsura ng mga sugat o lapses ng mga sugat sa labas ng katawan tapos bubuksan naming ’yung katawan na tinatawag na autopsy,” the doctor added.
“Doon makikita namin kung may mga character ang mga sugat na makakatulong samin na pwede masabi namin na ito ay accident, murder or homicide, or suicide.”
2. Insects can be used in examinations.
Aside from the right equipment, insects can also be used to get information about the body’s death. This is called forensic entomology.
“So ’yung may nakita kang katawan na hindi mo alam kung gaano na katagal namatay, tapos may mga flies na o maggots sa katawan, pwede mo i-harvest ’yung mga eggs, maggots and flies, padala mo sa isang institution na nagse-specialize sa forensic entomology, at pwede sila magbigay ng estimate,” Lim said.
“Depends sa kung ilang life cycle ’yung pagtingin sa size ng flies, size ng maggots,” she added.
3. Examinations can take from hours up to several months.
Although some examinations take only hours, some, unfortunately, take years and can go unsolved.
“May mga kaso na mabilis. ’Pag nagawa mo na ’yung autopsy, may diagnosis ka na,” Lim said.
“Meroon naman kailangan mo balikan ’yung kaso, balikan ’yung crime scene. Examine ulit ’yung records so mga ilang oras, araw, minsan buwan na meron mga unresolved cases na wala pa ring resulta.”
4. There is no proper forensic pathology education in the Philippines.
Although there is a need for forensic pathology, there is no institution that offers proper education on this discipline in the Philippines.
In order to be formally educated and trained in forensic pathology, one will need to travel to a different country.
Some of those who do get their education no longer come back due to the lack of opportunities here.
5. There are only two forensic pathologists in the country.
Despite the rising number of crimes that occur every day, there are only two only forensic pathologists in the country—Lim and Dr. Raquel Fortun.
“Typically, compared to other doctors, hindi kami nagki-clinic,” said Fortun, who handled notable cases such as the Ozone disco fire, the Dacer-Corbito case, and the Maguindanao massacre.
“Wala ’yung demand eh … mayroon kang dalawa sa Pilipinas na hindi naman nagagamit, so that’s very frustrating, and remember na forensic science work is multidisciplinary,” she said.
“Isa pa ’yang issue wala ka namang teammates. ’Yung teammates na sinasabi ko, ’yung mga same standards as you,” said the doctor.
“Kulang ng teammates, kulang ka rin ng gamit, kulang ka ng funds. Saan mo gagawin ’tong autopsy na ’to? Ano pondo mo?”
Lim admitted there were days when she would ask herself whether she should’ve just stayed in the United States.
“May mga days na tinatanong ko sa sarili ko bakit hindi na lang ako nag-stay sa States, kasi doon, ayun nga sabi ng isa kong boss, ‘bumalik ka na dito. Wasted ’yung skills mo sa Pilipinas.’ May mga ganoong hirit,” Lim said.
“Nakaka-depress kasi hindi ma-practice. I have skills which are deteriorating because hindi ko siya nagagamit full-time,” she added.
“It is still frustrating to some extent," said Fortun, a practicing forensic pathologist for 25 years now.
“Awareness is already there. I think to some extent people now know that it can do more than what other doctors are doing right now, but again, I’m not really sure where we’re heading. I’m not sure what else I can do. I have only a few more years before I retire. Most I’m doing is to teach and train,” she added.
6. There is a need to change the crime investigation system in the Philippines.
The Philippines is the only country that still applies the medico-legal system, especially since we lack the proper experts to handle the death investigations.
“Hindi tayo nakapag-shift kasi in place na ’yung system and ang tingin ko is hindi nila na-feel ’yung need na mag-shift,” Lim said.
“Hindi ko rin sasabihin na hindi sila scientific. Doctors din sila so may mga research diyan. It’s just that kaming dalawang forensic pathologists are formally trained.”
“Kulang tayo sa sistema,” said Fortun. “Wala tayong death investigation system na automatic ’yung doctor doon na death investigator ay actually forensic pathologist, so imagine gaano kalaki ’yung problema natin tulad nyan.”
Aside from the death investigation system, the experts pointed out that the system of handling bodies from crime scenes had also become a problem especially since these were just brought to a funeral parlor, instead of a laboratory for further investigation.
“’Yung katawan ay ebidensiya. Ito bang mga taga-punerarya ba marunong mag-handle ng ebidensiya? Hindi,” Fortun said.
“Dadamputin lang ’yung bangkay, dadalhin sa punerarya tapos ’yung morgue nila hindi naman angkop mapanghawak ng ebidensiya. Pang embalming lang siya practically,” she added.
Lim also noted how the country’s justice system relied on witness testimonies when science could be used as an effective evidence in the case.
“Masyado tayo nagre-rely sa witness testimony. Ang problema kasi hindi alam ng judge ’yung kung totoo ’yung sinasabi o hindi. Makakatulong ’yung physical evidence na ’yun ’yung magsu-support sa mga witnesses niyo kung mapapaniwalaan niya ’yung witness o hindi,” said Lim.
For Lim, with the many crimes and deaths going uninvestigated, a change in the system is long overdue.
“Dapat palitan ang system dahil maraming nag-fafall sa wayside or maraming nakaka-escape na deaths na dapat i-investigate. ’Yun ’yung nakakatakot. Doon walang sistema talaga,” she said.
“Napaka-importante sana kasi nga marami tayong insidente ng krimen sa Pilipinas,” added Fortun. “Marami dapat i-imbestigahan and yet hindi naman nangyayari because of … very little science ang dumadaan sa ating imbestigasyon.” – Kaela Malig/RC, GMA News