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Forensic pathology is a branch of the field of pathology which applies the principles of pathology to the legal profession. Forensic pathologists specialize in examining bodies and evidence such as body fluids and tissue samples for the purpose of gathering information which can be used in criminal investigation and court trials. They are sometimes known as medical examiners, coroners, or simply pathologists, depending on the region where they work.
Some people think that the term “forensics” refers to forensic pathology, which generates considerable confusion when forensic accountants, forensic document examiners, forensic psychiatrists, and other forensics professionals are discussed. “Forensic” actually comes from the Latin forum, and it means “pertaining to a trial.” The field of forensics was developed in the 1800s, when people began applying scientific methods to criminal investigation and legal trials.
The field of pathology in general is focused on the study of disease and its processes. A specialist in forensic pathology has training in this field, with additional skills which can be applied to the legal field. For example, he or she can examine a body to determine the cause of death, but the pathologist can also look for other clues and information, such as defensive marks on the hands which might indicate that the victim fought back while being attacked.
Forensic pathology can involve the study of bodies, a process known as autopsy, or analysis of samples taken at crime scenes or from the body. In cases where a complete body is not available for examination, the forensic pathologist can gather information from the available materials which can be used in investigation and eventual prosecution. They can also examine samples of tissue and body fluids to look for toxins and signs which can provide additional clues into the nature of the death, such as evidence that someone was suffocated and then submerged to make the death look like a drowning.
In addition to being knowledgeable about human anatomy and pathology, a forensic pathologist needs some additional skills. He or she must be able to collect evidence properly and to maintain the chain of custody, ensuring that the evidence is not compromised. It may also be necessary for forensic pathologists to testify on the witness stand in some cases, and in some instances, a specialist in forensic pathology may be retained by the defense for the purpose of refuting claims made by the specialist who works for the government or the prosecution.