When a person dies inexplicably in Luxembourg, it is very likely that they end up on the table of the "service médico-judiciaire" at the LNS. The team of forensic doctors led by Dr Andreas Schuff is specialised in the autopsy of corpses, but also knows the anatomy of the living inside out, because there is much more to the profession than meets the eye.
Who doesn't know them: the slightly quirky coroners behind the autopsy table, usually nicknamed "Ducky" or "Bug", who dig out paint particles and skin fragments under fingernails and use black humour to announce who the perpetrator of the latest murder case is. But what has been successfully portrayed in TV crime dramas since the beginning of the 70s does not correspond at all to what really happens in the autopsy room. "In the film, forensic doctors do almost everything, from interviewing witnesses to interpreting DNA and toxicology findings to solving the case. In reality, however, the whole thing is a big team effort", announces Martine Schaul, a specialist in forensic medicine at the "Laboratoire national de santé" (LNS).
Schaul has been working in the "service médico-judiciaire" since 2017, and analyses everything that does not belong to the category of "normal" or natural deaths. " All kinds of cases are being autopsied. Examples are unexplained deaths, intoxications – we systematically perform autopsies on drug-related deaths – suicides, accidents on the road or at work, deaths that are no longer recognisable due to fire, decay or dismemberment, people who have died in custody or in public spaces, or cases where someone has drowned, and an analysis is needed to determine whether it was an accident or a suicide." Contrary to expectations, homicides represent only a small percentage of the cases to be analyzed, as Luxembourg is comparatively quiet, especially when it comes to serial killers, for example.
The necessary distance
However, the 36-year-old's area of expertise does not only include examinations of corpses, which is the classic image of forensic doctors from series such as Crime Scene, Navy CIS and so on, but also of living "patients". The forensic pathologist only reluctantly remembers one such example, even though the images still float before her eyes as if it was only yesterday: "I once had to examine a student who had been raped and abused by a stranger on her way home. The work for my documentation and search for clues was very intense, because I first had to get her to let me examine her."
While the contact with bereaved families is usually the responsibility of the funeral director in charge, allowing forensic pathologists to maintain a certain distance from the victims, cases like this one are particularly striking for Schaul because they are not part of her usual work routine: "We tend to work on neutral terrain, without a direct connection to the victims. But sometimes you ask yourself questions, for example, when someone is found only after a long time because the death had not been noticed before. Then you wonder what kind of life the person might have led and why no one seems to have missed them. Or in the case of car accidents under the influence of alcohol, how unnecessary the death was. But those are exceptions; normally you don't get all that."
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Autopsy 2.0: Between life and death
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