Virtual autopsy: does it spell the end of the scalpel?
Scientific advances have led experts to pioneer the 'virtopsy', a
non-invasive imaging process which can reveal details conventional
methods would have missed. According to the article, CT and MRI imaging are now often deemed sufficient. In Manchester,
coroners now routinely give families the option of an MRI scan to
establish the cause of death and Guy Rutty, chief forensic pathologist to the East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit and a member of the Leicester team that exhumed Richard III,
recently called for cross-sectional autopsy imaging to be made available
on the NHS. "There are important religious, cultural and humanitarian
benefits offered by non-invasive autopsies," he argues. "As people
become more familiar with the technology, demand is expected to grow."
I have no doubt that it will not be very long before this form of evidence is presented at trials in this country. Compare with how DNA evidence is now accepted in evidence even where the DNA profile is extracted from minute samples - (here). However, as the article suggests, some police and legal experts are not so
sure, pointing out that in complex cases a virtual autopsy can never be a
substitute for the real thing, particularly where a successful criminal
prosecution may depend on matching a bullet extracted from the victim
to the rifling on the barrel of a particular gun. Unless and until
juries become used to 3D imaging evidence, defence lawyers are also
likely to exploit juries' unfamiliarity with virtopsy to raise doubts
about prosecution cases.
Of course, imaging will probably not prevent the need for traditional autopsy in every case and, in the example of the bullet needed for ballistic testing, there will be a need to remove it from the body. The article itself indicates that scanning can see through skin, bone and even soft
tissue to detect bullet fragments overlooked by traditional pathologists
equipped only with a scalpel and the human eye.
As for defence lawyers, it is their duty to test the evidence. This is no reason for standing in the way of an obviously beneficial development in forensic science and one capable of preventing further distress to already distressed families. As ever, the court will require expert witnesses to assess the results of post-mortem examination and juries will require the guidance of judges on the reception of evidence.