Article by Vaidhehi Veena Sanmugananthan
Graphic design by Michie (Xingyu) Wu
From our favourite crime shows to chilling murder mystery podcasts, forensic science is often depicted to be very entertaining and glamorous. However, as we learned in episode #106 “Raw Talk Unsolved: Investigating Forensics”, the source of this entertainment comes less from crime-fighting or action filled storylines of investigations and more from the exciting contributions of the various specialties within forensic science. In this episode, we took a deep dive into the fascinating intersection between two very different yet complementary fields, law and medicine, and learned more about how these fields intertwine to form different career branches within the field of forensics.
What is forensics medicine?
Forensic medicine is an important component of forensic science that involves the application of different medical professions to legal situations and questions.1 Forensic medicine is not limited to only deaths and major crimes, but encompasses the non-discriminatory care given to patients who have been involved in criminal cases. There are multiple different professions within forensics that involve medicine including: coroners, forensic pathologists, forensic nurses, and many more.2 In Raw Talk episode #106, we learn more about the unique and vital roles these professions play in forensics from our guests.
As shared by our first guest Sheila Early, a longstanding forensic nurse, forensic nursing is a new term that has been developing over the years. She shares “…forensic nursing is where health care, the judicial system and law enforcement intersect… all three spheres will coincide. For example, a child is being abused at home, they may see a family doctor, they may go to the emergency department…and there may be a fairly plausible explanation for the injury. If you look at that same child with a forensic lens, [the] nurse has the expertise to say the mechanism of injury does not match what I see. There is a difference between intentional and unintentional injuries. They’re what we call either biomarkers or red flags. So, when a forensic nurse sees that patient, the documentation [and referrals] may be very different.”
According to the International Association of Forensic Nurses, forensic nurses are registered or advanced practice nurses that are specially trained to contribute to forensic related situations. They provide care for victims of trauma, treating their short- or long-term health impacts and ensuring their needs are met.3 They are also often called upon to contribute to testimonies and consultations for civil and criminal proceedings to provide a clinical lens.3
“The other part that’s really important to remember about forensic nursing, it is not about victims. It is about anyone who has been subjected to some sort of violence or trauma which affects them… [Some people think] forensic nursing is about law enforcement. No, it’s not. It’s about the nursing care of people who have had an unalterable event in their life, which is usually due to trauma and violence.” Indeed, forensic nursing is a unique discipline that focuses on providing care and support to those subjected to harmful situations.
Forensic pathology is a specialization that medical doctors can pursue, requiring additional training in pathology, to become experts in diseases and injuries that cause or are associated with sudden death.4 They can be thought of as “the voice of the deceased” in legal environments. This entails performing autopsies, determining the cause of death, testifying in court and (in some scenarios) acting as coroners for suspicious death cases.4
Dr. Jayantha Herath, the Program Director of Forensic Pathology and associate professor at the University of Toronto, spoke about his role as a forensic pathologist. “The main duty of a forensic pathologist is to [identify]…the deceased and exclude trauma when a body comes. Once you exclude the trauma, then you explore whether any toxicological causes [are] related. Then [you] do a complete body examination…collect samples and do internal examination by medical process and the pathological processes. [This includes identifying] what kind of force [was], applied whether it’s a blunt force, whether it’s a sharp force, whether it’s a gunshot wound, and then we try to age the injury. We collect evidence of documentation by examining a body and asking for various testing, like toxicology, microbiology, molecular diagnostics. After that we collect all their test results and provide an opinion. We call it [a] postmortem examination report, or autopsy report.”
Within Ontario, the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service (OFPS)5 is in charge of providing forensic pathology services under the Coroners Act.6 This service also collaborates with other organizations to ensure high-quality of death investigations and civilian safety.5 Forensic pathologists are essential to solving criminal cases.
Within each province, one person is appointed as the Chief Coroner. According to the Canadian Society of Forensic Medicine, this person must be within Ontario, but can be lay individuals or come from other professional backgrounds in the other provinces and territories.4 Dr. Herath shares that generally, the coroner’s role is to answer five main questions at the end of the investigation. “… Who is dead? Where did the person die? When did [they] die? And… cause of death? And by what…[is] the manner of death…whether it is a homicide, whether it’s a suicide, whether it’s an accident, whether it’s a natural, [or] undetermined.”
Dr. Dirk Huyer, the current Chief Coroner of Ontario, shares that the coroner’s job mainly “would entail…working in their general practices most of their time. And then when there’s a sudden or an unexpected death, or a traumatic death, or something unnatural they would get called by our office to attend and work together with the police…to understand the circumstances of what happened…they would then meet with the police officers…and make a plan on what…investigation steps would be taken.” Coroners generally act as one of the representatives for an investigation and are expected to adhere to the coroner’s code of ethics as part of their duty.7 These individuals are essential to the fluid and successful progression of criminal investigations, as they must ensure each criminal case they are appointed to properly addresses all questions and investigation steps needed to solve and close the case.
Learn more about professions in forensic medicine and how to get involved
This episode is just a snippet into the vast variety of specialties that exist in the field of forensics. The responsibilities of forensic nurses, forensic pathologists, and chief coroners are unique in their own demands, but play equally important roles in criminal investigations. We encourage you to learn more about the aforementioned professions, forensic medicine, and where you can study forensic science in Canada.
We would like to acknowledge the efforts and ideas of the rest of the episode #106 team. To learn more about the forensic medicine, we invite you to listen to episode #106 of Raw Talk Podcast, titled “Raw Talk Unsolved: Investigating Forensics”.
Also, check out our references for more information on the bolded topics, as well as some interesting resources the team has compiled in the episode’s show notes on the Raw Talk Podcast website.
- Forensic medicine [Internet]. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.; [cited 2022Jul13]. Available from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/forensic-medicine
- Careers by Major – Forensic Science [Internet]. Careers by Major – Forensic Science | Career Centre. [cited 2022Jul13]. Available from: https://www.utm.utoronto.ca/careers/careers-by-major-forensic-science
- Forensic nursing [Internet]. IAFN. [cited 2022Jul13]. Available from: https://forensicnurses.org/page/WhatisFN/
- Medical [Internet]. Canadian Society of Forensic Science. [cited 2022Jul13]. Available from: https://www.csfs.ca/what-we-do/disciplines-sections/medical/
- Ontario Forensic Pathology Service annual report – April 1, 2019 – March 31, 2020 [Internet]. ontario.ca. [cited 2022Jul13]. Available from: https://www.ontario.ca/document/ontario-forensic-pathology-service-annual-report-april-1-2019-march-31-2020/what-we-do
- Coroners Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. C.37 [Internet]. Ontario.ca. 2018 [cited 2022Jul13]. Available from: https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/90c37/v5
- Office of the chief coroner and the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service [Internet]. ontario.ca. [cited 2022Jul13]. Available from: https://www.ontario.ca/page/office-chief-coroner-and-ontario-forensic-pathology-service#:~:text=The%20Office%20of%20the%20Chief,prevent%20deaths%20in%20similar%20circumstances.