Medico-legal investigations into sudden, unnatural, violent, and accidental deaths occupy an important role in the common law system. They require coroners to ascertain the identity of the deceased, determine the cause of a death and in many instances, make recommendations for reducing the occurrence of preventable deaths. A key element of the coronial investigation has been the invasive autopsy, which is performed by a forensic pathologist if a coroner deems it necessary for determining the medical cause of death. In recent decades, the invasive autopsy has become a site of contestation, especially for families of the deceased who oppose post-mortem dissections due to religious or cultural beliefs. Since the late twentieth century, forensic imaging technology, particularly post-mortem computed tomography (CT), has offered the ideal of a virtual autopsy. Little is known however about how technological modifications to medico-legal investigations assist or hinder practitioners in fulfilling their responsibilities under coronial law. This paper will analyse how forensic imaging technology has transformed medico-legal investigations since the twentieth century and how it continues to affect the way coroners and other legal personnel working in the jurisdiction perform their roles in the legal system.
The paper will focus on how legal institutions have sought to visualise the corpse through forensic imaging technology since the twentieth century. This has demanded that coroners, pathologists and lawyers acquire new skills in deciphering the meaning of pixelated shadows and interpreting CT scans as evidence of death causation. It has also problematised the ‘mechanical objectivity’ of the forensic gaze by embedding an optical device between the dead body, the medico-legal expert, and the judicial observer. CT comprises both a mechanical instrument and a computational technique that virtualises the interiority of the corpse by cutting it into sections without opening it up. It obfuscates the epistemological boundaries between unique identifiers of a tomographic corpse, its representation as an undefined set of slices that could belong to any-body, and its abstraction in three-dimensional visualisations of data. In transmogrifying the materiality of organs, tissues and bones into multi-planar reconstructions, the technology offers judicial observers the allure of seeing ‘corporeal evidence’ with their own eyes. This paper argues that forensic imaging technology makes demands on legal institutions to question the truth of what they see and acknowledge the limits of their capacity to know the corpse.
Dr Marc Trabsky is an Associate Professor in Law, and an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow on ‘Socio-Legal Implications of Virtual Autopsies in Coronial Investigations’ (DE220100064) at La Trobe University. He has written Law and the Dead: Technology, Relations and Institutions (Routledge, 2019), which was awarded the Law and Society Association of Australia and New Zealand Book Prize in 2019, and Death: New Trajectories in Law (Routledge, 2023, forthcoming). He is also co-editing with Imogen Jones the Routledge Handbook of Law and Death (Routledge, 2024, forthcoming). Marc will be a Liberty Fellow in the School of Law, University of Leeds, in 2023.
Chair: Professor Carl Stychin, IALS Director
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