Listening to the evidence“It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which vital.” ― Sherlock Holmes
On a pouring weekday morning, 20 or so ambulances are packed in a small parking area at the National Institute of Scientific Investigation in Seoul, where police investigators, bereaved family members and drivers hustle about, smoke, sigh or looking morose. The gloom in the waiting area matches the rain in its dreariness.
In the autopsy room, two bodies lie side by side. There is a heavy smell in the air, as the severely-decomposed body of a man in his 30s, believed to have died by hanging, has been laid out for inspection. Another body, of a 69-year-old man found in his home with a plastic bag and electric wire over his head, lies on the chilly operating table.
Dr. Lee Ho, the medical examiner on the Gimpo case, as the death of the 69-year-old is termed, gets a briefing from the police inspector. “The elderly man was found by his wife in their dining room. The family wants to know if there’s a probability of murder. But there were no signs of break-in at the scene.” Dr. Lee listens, then jots down figures as the coroner calls out weight, height and other details.
Dr. Lee and the coroner take turns working on the body while a forensic photographer takes pictures. A few medical students from Yonsei University gather around, observing.
Inspecting the stomach, Dr. Lee says, “Gastric contents, 100.” One of the students writes figures on a chart. Dr. Lee and his team carefully examine each body part. Measurements are recorded, and the organs are placed in labeled containers for further examination by the pathology department.
If Dr. Lee sees a scar or a suspected area of damage on the skin, he asks the photographer to take a close-up shot. There is blood on the table, and on the floor, but assistants are quick to wash it away.
A police inspector and a cousin of the deceased 69-year-old ― one family member is allowed in the autopsy room ― watch the ongoing scene. At one point the cousin closes his eyes. The inspector writes some notes and waits. Dr. Lee rereads the police report, studying the pictures from the scene, dicussing the likelihood of murder versus suicide.
After about 40 minutes, the autopsy is over, and the coroner begins to patch the body with a large needle and thread. He works with deftness and ease, in quick succession, as though years of experience had taught him that he is not dealing with a human being.
Dr. Lee goes over to the police officer and the cousin to give the preliminary results. “If the subject was murdered, there would be marks of violence such as oppression in muscle areas, wounds, or other traces, but with the knowledge I have in forensic medicine, I find no indication that the subject’s death was induced by another person,” he says sternly. “Nor is there evidence that death came directly from the wire, after observing the muscle area of the neck.”
The police officer and the cousin nod in unison as Dr. Lee continues. “As for the exact cause of death, we need further evaluation by the forensic science division, by studying the contents of the organs to see if there are any signs of drugs, toxicity or alcohol. We will contact you after extensive and exhaustive analyses have been made.”
After the morning’s autopsies are finished ― there are 20 to 30 on an average day ― Dr. Lee and his team sit down for a cigarette break, and he talks about his work.
He mentions that he doesn’t use a mask. “Medical examiners prefer not to use masks so that it’ll be easier to catch the smell of toxins or any other chemicals in the body,” he says. “It’s better to make accurate judgment calls early on based on my senses.”
Does the gruesomeness of his job wear him down? He laughs. “Somebody’s got to do it, right?”
“Autopsy per se does not come as a gruesome task for a medical trainee,” he continues, “but when I find out later that the body was of an AIDS patient or any fatal disease, I do feel a bit disconcerted.
“But then I get over it, because it’s a job I do.”
Unlike their counterparts in the United States, medical examiners at the National Institute of Scientific Investigation, which has provided support to law enforcement agencies for more than 50 years, do not have investigative rights to visit the scene of the death. Their work, autopsies and other pathological analyses, is limited to the operating room and the laboratory.
“In cases where bodies are so decomposed that autopsy or pathological analyses would be scantly useful, being at the site to investigate to reconstruct the scene would help us, given our forensic knowledge,” says Dr. Lee, who is in his sixth year at the institute. “Unlike in the West, we are not given investigative rights to the medical examiner. Such limited discretionary powers can hinder proper evaluation.”
Over 4,000 autopsies are conducted per year at the institute, most of them referred by the district police or the public prosecutor’s office.
Besides autopsies, the institute’s forensic medicine department conducts DNA analysis, polygraph tests, crime scene photography and document analysis.
The other main pillar of the Institute is the forensic science department. After an autopsy, the forensic science team studies the organs to help determine the cause of death.
The organs from the Gimpo case are transferred to the department’s drug and toxicology division as soon as the autopsy is over. A week later, results show little trace of alcohol, and virtually none of toxins.
Considering that the subject was in poor health ― he was virtually paralyzed from the waist down ― scientists at the lab conclude that the plastic bag was instrumental in causing death by smothering, which was self-induced.
The results are sent to the Gimpo police and to the subject’s family. In cases like these, where the forensic medicine department can’t immediately establish cause of death, the forensic science department is a pillar of support.
Every day, the organic chemistry lab analyzes more than 100 blood samples ― most from traffic stops ― for blood alcohol. The toxicology lab checks blood, organs, and urine to determine toxicity levels. The narcotics analysis division identifies illegal or lethal substances, such as psychotropic agents, cannabis, and inhalants in seized material and fluids.
In cases of fire and explosions, the physical analysis division takes charge. They also provide support for voice identification in case of kidnapping calls. The traffic engineering division determines causes of accidents. Burned cars and deformed vehicles take up part of the parking lot at the Institute, awaiting evaluation.
The institute once solved a case involving the death of a Russian pilot who, with another pilot, had flown to Korea to celebrate the establishment of diplomatic ties between the countries. The pilot died after a night of drinking, but because the other pilot had been drinking heavily alongside him, the Russian Embassy wanted to know why only one of them met a fatal end. The institute was able to prove that the pilot who’d died had drunk a methanol-type liquor exclusively, which in this case made it more toxic.
The work here seems routine to the scientists and researchers who do it, but, as in that case, it often has national repercussions. The Institute has worked on national disasters such as the Korean Air Lines bombing, the bombing of the U.S. Cultural Council in Busan, suicide of Chairman Chung Mong-hun of Hyundai Asan and the Daegu subway disaster.
“We have come very far from our beginnings as a small crime lab,” says Park Syung-woo, the institute’s director. “But what we lack is cultivation of future scientists in this field, since there are no forensic studies departments in universities.
“It is our duty to foster interest in this area,” Mr. Park says.
by Choi Jie-ho