Socio-Legal Implications of Virtual Autopsies in Coronial Investigations
Image: Damon Lam, 2019 (Unsplash)
This research project explores how forensic imaging technology impacts coronial investigations in Australia. Medico-legal investigations into sudden, unnatural, violent and accidental deaths require coroners to ascertain the identity of the deceased, determine the cause of the death and make recommendations for reducing the occurrence of preventable deaths. A key element of their investigation has been the invasive autopsy, which is performed by a forensic pathologist if a coroner deems it necessary, and which has become in recent decades 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 – post-mortem computed tomography (pmCT), post-mortem magnetic resonance imaging (pmMRI) and 3D photogrammetry-based optical surface scanning (3D surface scanning) – has offered the ideal of a virtual autopsy. In 2005, the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) became the first forensic medical institute in Australia to install a multidetector CT scanner, and since then, every deceased person admitted to VIFM undergoes a whole-body pmCT. The use of pmCT to supplement or as a triage for invasive autopsies has resulted in a substantial decrease in the autopsy rate of all reportable deaths in Victoria. Yet little is known about how technological modifications to coronial investigations assist or hinder practitioners in fulfilling their statutory responsibilities under coronial law. In addition, if the use of pmCT is to be expanded in Australia, and in the future potentially supersede invasive autopsies, then it is critical to examine the social and legal effects of the implementation of forensic imaging technology in coronial investigations.
This project aims to assess how pmCT transforms coronial investigations. It will achieve this aim through the following objectives:
Develop a critical-historical account of the way pmCT has been developed, used, and appropriated in coronial investigations since the late twentieth century;
Document evidence of how the practice of virtual autopsies in Australia and internationally in the twenty-first century impacts the professional lives of coroners and other legal personnel;
Advance knowledge on the social and legal effects of implementing pmCT in Australian coronial investigations.
Expected outcomes of this project include a framework for understanding how forensic imaging technology has been developed in coronial investigations, and the social and legal effects of using virtual autopsies as a supplement or replacement of post-mortem dissections. This should provide significant benefits for stakeholders of the coronial process, through a deeper understanding of how new technologies can be best implemented to improve the efficiency, accuracy and cost-effectiveness of coronial investigations.
The project is led by Dr Marc Trabsky at La Trobe University and is funded through an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DE220100064).