Friday, Apr 25, 2014, 12:58 PM CST – China

Politics

Forensic Medicine

Pathologically Politicized

Practitioners at all levels concur that “messy” is the word that best defines Chinese forensic medicine. But why?

Photo by AFP

Wang Xuemei re-enacts the Ma Yue electrocution case Photo by IC

In late August, Wang Xuemei, 57, a senior female pathologist and vice president of the China Forensic Medicine Association (CFMA) announced her resignation. In a public statement, Wang cited her “extreme disappointment with the current situation of Chinese forensic medicine” as her principle reason for resigning. Pulling few punches, this former leading light in this emerging field stated that she “loathed” and was “fed up with” the “ridiculous and irresponsible” diagnoses and conclusions falsely presented as accurate by ostensibly respectable figures in her former profession.

To support her argument, she cited one particular case – the electrocution of a Beijing college student named Ma Yue while commuting on the capital’s subway – which she felt had been fudged to suit political interests.

On August 23, 2010, Ma Yue, 21, died after he allegedly fell onto the electrified rails at Gulou Dajie subway station in Beijing. The State-controlled Beijing Subway Company, however, failed to provide detectives with closed-circuit video footage of the incident despite the presence of numerous CCTV cameras in the vicinity, meaning the circumstances leading up to Ma’s death were unclear.

While an autopsy report issued by the CFMA stated that “Ma died of electrocution through the electrified track,” there was no indication as to whether or not negligence on the part of subway staff and operators had contributed to his death.

The government investigation, conducted by Beijing Xicheng District Administration of Work Safety, therefore declared that Ma’s death was not the result of lax safety provision. After the investigation published its findings, Ma Yue’s mother Meng Zhaohong hired lawyer Xu Liping to exert pressure on the courts to reopen the case.

“[The report] says what killed Ma, but it doesn’t explain how he came to fall from the platform or whether he died after being rescued,” Xu told the Global Times in August 2013. He added that, apparently, station staff did not attempt to administer first aid to Ma following the accident, despite this being a legal requirement.

Forensics specialist Wang Xuemei claimed that the conclusions in the CFMA’s perfunctory report on Ma’s death were “ridiculous and irresponsible.” She pointed out that trauma to Ma’s jaw, cited in the autopsy, could indicate that he had been electrocuted while standing on the platform. Had this been the case, then Ma’s death could have been attributed to inadequate safety provision by the Beijing Subway Company.

The Ma Yue case, and Wang’s subsequent high-profile attack on forensic medicine in China, has turned into a rallying cry for those who believe that this crucial field is almost exclusively subverted by the justice system in order to exonerate the authorities from any blame in the event of an accidental death.

Far From Exceptional

According to Meng Zhaohong, Ma Yue’s mother, she first began to have doubts about how carefully his case was being handled when she attempted to visit the morgue where her son’s body was placed following his death. Upon contacting the Shengtang Forensic Identification Institute in southern Beijing, she found the facility hadn’t bothered to record the time and date when they had taken delivery of the body from the police. Meng, suspecting that Shengtang were unqualified, refused to acquiesce to an autopsy, instead demanding her son’s case was handled by a “more professional” facility.

Upon a recommendation from the police, Meng finally chose the CFMA forensic lab due to its association with China’s leading forensics institute. At the time she was unaware that the CFMA’s forensics department, just like Shengtang’s, was a civilian institution unequipped to deal with the complexities of criminal pathology. Once Meng discovered this, she appealed repeatedly to the Xicheng district government to invalidate the CFMA’s findings, only to be rebuffed time and again.

Meng attempted to appeal to other forensics institutes affiliated with top universities, however centers with ties to Shanghai Fudan University and the Shenyang Medical Institute both rejected her case.

On August 19, Meng sued the Xicheng district government for “unlawful administrative inaction.” Her case remains pending.

“I don’t disagree with the findings of the autopsy,” Meng told the Global Times. “I just want to know what really happened when my son fell off the platform. Now that no surveillance video footage is available, and the forensic center cannot tell me what really happened, to whom else can I turn for the truth?”

Chang Lin, vice dean of the Institute of Evidence Law and Forensic Science, China University of Political Science and Law, told NewsChina that Ma Yue’s case was only one in a series which highlight the limitations under which pathologists and forensic detectives have to operate in China.

In Chang’s opinion, forensic laboratories should not be subordinate to the police, but instead operate as independent facilities under State regulation, working alongside, not under, the police in criminal cases. “In this way, the independence and scientific integrity of forensic scientists can be protected,” Chang told our reporter.

Intricate Ties

Modern forensic science in China took shape in the 1980s, with some universities establishing specialist labs to explore this unfamiliar discipline, and its potential application in law. At the same time, China’s police force and judiciary set up their own forensic institutions.

Predictably, the lack of independence and objectivity in China’s justice system became the principal obstacle to the development of forensic pathology. A suspicious death in 2003 exposed for the first time the chaotic situation in the country’s forensic labs.

When 21-year-old teacher Huang Jing was found dead, naked, in her elementary school staff dormitory in Xiangtan, Hunan Province, her corpse underwent a total of five autopsies. The initial examination concluded that Huang had died of heart and lung failure, but three subsequent investigations found she had died a wrongful death. Finally, in July 2004, seven top forensic experts from Beijing and Shanghai went to Xiangtan making joint autopsy analysis, and reached the final conclusion that Huang Jing’s death was the result of serious physical trauma resulting from a violent sexual assault at the hands of her then boyfriend, Jiang Junwu.

The notoriety of Huang’s case triggered calls for the reform of the role of forensics in criminal cases. On October 1, 2005, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the “Decision on Judiciary Identification Management” which decreed that while the police and procuratorates (the two judicial entities which determine whether a case can go to trial) would retain their forensic departments, those of the courts would be replaced by so-called “independent” labs. 

Today, most criminal pathologists in China are affiliated with the police, and their role has become key to guaranteeing the country’s controversial 100 percent detection target in murder cases. Essentially, it has become the job of these forensic scientists to, by any means necessary, come up with the evidence to secure convictions in line with the investigative conclusions already reached by the police. It is also difficult for forensic scientists to overturn erroneous conclusions handed down by the police.

One forensic expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NewsChina that he regularly received “tips” from police investigators and his superiors on how to produce “favorable” results.

When evidence is lacking or inconclusive, he continued, police investigators often interfere with forensic reports in order to press for a speedy resolution.

“In this way, a corpse can be swiftly cremated in order to prevent further enquiry,” a source using the pseudonym He Ping told Southern People Weekly in late September.

Perhaps the most famous example of a swift cremation being used to cover evidence was the Neil Heywood murder case. Heywood’s body was cremated almost immediately after his suspicious sudden death on November 14, 2011. A coroner’s report issued by the Chongqing police claimed the British businessman had died of alcohol poisoning, despite the fact that no autopsy had been conducted. Only when Politburo member Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai, along with the former head of the Chongqing Public Security Bureau Wang Lijun were arrested on suspicion of murder did it emerge that Heywood had been poisoned by Gu and Wang – though the swift cremation of Heywood’s body meant that forensic verification of this claim was impossible.

In response to mounting controversy, some forensic experts have attempted to defend their maligned profession. “Forensic scientists are among the most righteous and hard-working of civil servants,” said a scientist from the Zhejiang Provincial Public Security Bureau.  “We devote ourselves to the work simply because we love it.” 

Marketize

Since the government mandated the separation of forensic labs from the courts, nominally independent institutions have sprung up across the country. According to statistics released by the Ministry of Justice, by the end of 2012, the number of registered forensic laboratories in China stood at 4,850, employing 53,000 registered personnel. Unlike those affiliated with the police and the procuratorate, these facilities are for-profit.

According to Ren Jiacheng, a forensic expert with the Beijing Public Security Bureau, while the law mandates that these facilities meet certain national standards in terms of equipment and practice, in reality very few are required to submit to inspection. “Many of them are far from qualified,” he told our reporter. “Yet no supervision organizations have ever tried to improve the situation.”

As a result of increased marketization, forensic science in China is becoming known for cutting corners in order to secure bigger profits. Insiders have disclosed that unregulated market competition has even led some forensic institutions to draw conclusions based on what their customers want, rather than pursuing a scientific and unbiased code of conduct. Some laboratories reportedly feel obliged to draw certain conclusions, as many customers refuse to pay if they don’t receive the result they expected.

Another insider told Southern People Weekly, an autopsy costs an average of 2,000 yuan (US$327), plus 1,000 yuan (US$163) for the release of the cause of death. When other expenses are factored in, a single forensic examination can cost a bereaved family member as much as 10,000 yuan (US$1,634).

Even in some universities, teachers of forensic science often neglect their classes in favor of performing lucrative autopsies. “Some universities can secure more than 200 cases per year and make over 3 million yuan (US$ 490,077) in profit,” remarked the same insider.

Chang Lin told NewsChina that some non-government forensics labs have worked out a profit-sharing deal with clients, whereby the cost of a forensic examination can be offset or even turned into profit by a successful compensation claim. By exaggerating the damage inflicted in, for example, a traffic collision, the client can gain sufficient compensation to more than cover the costs of the lab work. “Though this is illegal, it is hard to prove,” said Chang. “Dirty deals like these are done behind the scenes.”

In an investigative report from Southern Weekly, an anonymous expert held that police departments dominate China’s forensic experts, with no checks and balances to rectify the problem. Another forensic scientist, Wang Jianwen, revealed to the media that in some cases non-government forensic labs establish profitable relationships with the authorities. “For example, a good relationship with the traffic police may translate into priority access to the scene of an accident,” she said, adding that this in turn will result in kickbacks for police officers.

Goals?

In short, China’s government-affiliated forensics departments are subject to the wishes of the State, while non-government entities are typically moneymaking schemes with little scientific value. Thus, forensic science is among the most ridiculed of all China’s medical disciplines.

In her statement to the media, Wang Xuemei said that “through 30 years of adherence to professional ethics, I feel that I myself am not able to change the current situation for the better. I simply cannot come up with wrong judgments against my conscience any longer, even at the cost of my own life.”

During the interviews with NewsChina, some interviewees emphasized that the overhaul of the system is an imperative.

Some argue for a wholesale adoption of forensic detection systems already in place in the developed world. Others are pushing for more moderate reform within the existing framework. What is clear, however, is that in today’s China, any discipline associated with the justice system is going to struggle to rise above the ever-present problem of special interests.

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