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8 The Juridical Review 13 [Edinburgh]
Photography and Criminal Inquiries.
Henry D. Littlejohn
To render a medical report of a post-mortem examination as distinct and as easily comprehended as possible, is no easy matter. Few possess the requisite skill; and our language, unlike the French, does not lend itself to definite expression. The highest praise that can be given to such an important document is to say of it that the party who reads it has as clear a notion of the injuries therein described, as if he had been present and watched every stage of the dissection. Indeed, two different classes of readers have to be catered forthe strictly professional, who alone can fully estimate the value of the technical terms employed, and also those who cannot follow the intricacies of medical phraseology, and who desire merely a plain statement as to the cause of death. Take, for example, a simple case of fracture of the skull. It is only a medical man who can intelligently follow the direction of such an injury winding among the various cranial bones, and at each step of its progress involving the use of uncouth names, the etymology of which is shrouded in mystery. In fact, it requires great descriptive power, and a happy combination of scientific and popular phraseology, to render such injuries intelligible to any but strictly professional persons.
But if this is too often a matter of difficulty even to an experienced surgeon, what must it be to a juryman of average ability who, towards the conclusion of an exhausting trial in Court, listens to a document bristling with the jargon of the schools? A judge has declared that the anatomical term "Sacroiliac synchondrosis" had, like "Mesopotamia," a remarkably satisfying effect on his ear, but it certainly requires a considerable amount of explanation to render it comprehensible to the average mind.
Now, while accurate and clearly expressed reports are of importance, so far as the prosecution is concerned, they become doubly so when the exigencies of the defence are considered. The Crown can, by repeated precognitions, possibly arrive at satisfactory explanations of the leading anatomical and other details mentioned in the medical report, but the defence, in the case of a poor client, has difficulty in obtaining medical assistance, and even when this is available, the medical reportthe basis of the chargeis too often so worded as to render it impossible, even for a skilled witness, to understand its full import. Important details of vital importance, as bearing on the causation of the fatal injuries, are too often so indefinitely expressed is to leave grave doubts as to their exact meaning. I have read such documents, full of sounding phrases, and apparently teeming with accurate information, and yet which, to the practiced eye, failed egregiously to supply the very information necessary to support the opinion expressed as to the cause of death.
Indeed, it may be said that both the Crown and the defence are at the mercy of the medical reporters who, however honest and desirous of discharging their important duty, fail from want of experience and of power of expression, to give a clear description of what was found on dissection. This, while specially to be feared in country districts, where the opportunities for medico-legal practice are rarely afforded, is met with alike in town and country. I remember the first official dissection at which I was present. Associated with me was a senior member of the profession, who had long enjoyed the patronage of the procurator-fiscal. It was a case of the exposure of a newly-born infant. After what seemed to be an ordinary investigation, yielding no very definite results beyond establishing the fact that the child had survived its birth, it was luckily proposed to examine the throat, when a mass of soft dough was found accurately fitted to the upper strait of the air-passages, and moulding itself into the interior of the larynx. This satisfactorily explained the death, and was inscribed by my co-inspector, who dictated the report, as a "doughy mass in the pharynx." It so happened that at the time there was a public scare as to a new and formidable diseaseviz., Diphtheria, which, unfortunately, has never left us. Our report was read by the authorities as indicating death from natural causes. "The doughy mass in the pharynx " being looked upon as a graphic description of an unusual disease. But in the language of correct description "the doughy mass in the pharynx" became a mass of dough in that important cavity. The mistake was accidentally discovered; but, in the detection of such a crime, allow a few days to elapse, and the best directed efforts of skilled officers are of little avail
The remedy I propose for all this uncertainty is the more general use of photography. At present this is limited to the identification of the criminal, but with the unusual facilities now afforded for the practice of this popular art, I hold that it should be extended to all departments of criminal inquiry. In the case just cited two photos would have been of great interestone showing the placid features of the deceased, and the care that had been taken to shut the lips; the other representing the actual position of the foreign body, occluding the entrance to the air-passages. Every county constable, in my opinion, should be provided with a camera, by means of which he could indicate with unerring accuracy the attitude of a dead body, and its relations to surrounding objects. The records of medical jurisprudence afford numerous examples of the importance of determining the position of the body and that of the weapon. This has frequently settled the question of accident, suicide, or murder. No doubt, in our police regulations it is laid down that no dead body is to be moved until a medical man has inspected it; but in remote districts of the country, and even in our larger towns, medical assistance is not always available at once. A photo in such circumstances would be invaluable, and would put an end to discrepancies of otherwise trustworthy witnesses as to such simple facts as those connected with the disposition of a body. When the death has occurred in a house, it might be of essential importance to determine the position of the body on a bed, and its relation to articles on the bed or in the room. I need not insist on the benefit to be obtained in cases of murder and even in those of aggravated assault, from at once taking a photo of the locus before any of the furniture is moved, as one of the important questions in such cases relates to the presence of some article of domestic use which might furnish a plausible clue to the causation of some special injury. No doubt, in such cases plans of the locus are furnished, and the furniture may be arranged as on the fatal night. The element of uncertainty, however, remains, and might be avoided by the early use of the camera.
But I go further, and I insist, as a medical jurist, that in every important dissection the assistance of photography should be provided. I believe it was in the Monson case that it was first applied during successive stages of an actual dissection. The circumstances were peculiar. The body had remained for some time unburied, had undergone a long railway journey, and had been interred for nineteen days. Under these circumstances the skin quickly decays, and is easily destroyed by a slight touch. Advantage was taken of photography to preserve the appearance of the flesh wound that existed on the neck, and which indicated the size and direction of the original superficial injury. Another photo determined with accuracy the extent of laceration to which the ear had been subjected, while a third showed the amount of shattering of the skull, and a fourth the condition of the surface of the brain. Thus, every stage of the dissection from without inwards was carefully followed and accurately delineated in circumstances of great difficulty. But although night had set in before the examination was finished, the magnesium light afforded perfect definition in the various plates. Of course the defence benefited by these illustrations, and the medical report itself was in consequence much curtailed by simple reference to the various photos, which were admitted as evidence and included in the list of productions in the case. Numberless are the applications of photography to Forensic Medicine. A few of these I have alluded to. I am confident that, while the detection of crime will be greatly aided by its use, the administration of justice in its widest signification, as protecting the innocent and enabling the accused to bring forward every circumstance that can be urged in his favour, will be materially strengthened.
HENRY D. LITTLEJOHN.