UNDER THE MICRSCOPE
Dr. Raymund W. Lo
Once again, the Philippines is in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is proceeding with the investigation on the extrajudicial killings in the country. Soon after that announcement, another related development arose which found its way on the front pages of major newspapers and on TV newscasts. A repeat autopsy on the exhumed body of Kian delos Santos, who was killed in the Duterte war against drugs five years ago, was done last week by one of only two forensic pathologists in the country, Dr. Raquel Fortun.
Dr. Fortun called the previous two autopsies on Delos Santos, done initially by PNP medicolegal officers and Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), improper, calling it “autop-silip,” a play on the words autopsy and “silip,” Filipino for sneak peek.
She cited several findings that led her to conclude that, despite its being a high-profile case, the forensic investigation was sloppy. Neither agency had examined the body for exit wounds, which is mandatory for gunshot victims. Thus, Dr. Fortun found that the bullet that had entered Kian’s chest had lodged in the neck. It was completely missed by both previous autopsies. Neither PNP nor PAO saw the connection between the entry and exit wounds of the bullets fired at Kian’s head.
Another red flag was that the internal organs were not even examined. Only a skin incision of the chest was done without opening the body cavities. The autopsy report was likewise incomplete.
Her findings are not surprising. In the first place, neither the PNP medicolegal officers nor PAO “experts” are board-certified pathologists, let alone forensic pathologists. Only pathologists are trained to perform autopsies properly. A doctor who is not one, no matter what his expertise is in other medical specialties, cannot claim to be proficient in performing autopsies.
Before you can be a forensic pathologist, you must have trained in anatomic pathology and have passed the certifying board examination. Then you have to undergo a period of additional training in a forensic-pathology training program.
Before we get confused by people claiming to be forensic experts, forensics is not just one field of science. There are many disciplines involved: forensic dentistry, forensic entomology (study of insects in relation to cadavers), forensic anthropology, forensic psychology, computer forensics, toxicology, forensic chemistry, forensic biology and DNA testing, and so many more. It is not enough to call yourself a forensic expert. You must specify what field of forensics you are an expert in, and back it up with the proper training and credentials.
No, watching CSI or Hawaii Five-O doesn’t qualify. Neither will just being an MD and lawyer at the same time give you the right to call yourself a forensic expert, let alone perform a forensic autopsy. You can attend all the forensics meetings in person or online, but without the proper training and competence, these mean nothing.
Unfortunately, there are organizations that offer forensic-examiner certificates for a price. One such organization is the American College of Forensic Examiners Institute (ACFEI), founded by Robert O’Block, who was not a forensic expert of any kind but awarded more than 17,000 certificates to “diplomates” through ACFEI.
How easy is it to get an ACFEI certificate? You can apply online and pay a fee of over $600, answer an online test and, presto, you get a certificate! It was so easy that a Dr. Katz, a cat in real life, managed to become a forensic-examiner expert. This is one certification a certain “expert” is touting as his credential. Go figure!
Our crime-investigation system is not working well precisely because we lack forensic experts in the various fields. The most urgent need in the PNP and NBI crime labs is for forensic pathologists who can perform forensic autopsies competently and can testify as credible expert witnesses when cases are in trial. As the Kian delos Santos case shows, there is zero credibility in these organizations’ forensic investigations.
I was told there were attempts to send several of their staff to train abroad. However, without the proper background in anatomic pathology, these persons would not have been able to absorb the training and ended up as vacationers.
Back in 2020, I attended a workshop to “Develop the Legal Framework for the Philippine Medicolegal Death Investigation System (MLDI)” (online, of course). Speakers from around the world shared their national death-investigation systems best practices, which must produce high-quality death information — i.e., independent, accurate, timely, and complete — none of which our current system is. Neither do we have independent MLDI officials nor adequate funding for MLDI services. So, how can we claim to the ICC that our criminal justice system is working?