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The lady in the white suit

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Danielle Barron speaks to Professor Marie Cassidy about the challenges involved in being State Pathologist

 

Hailing from a city once called the Murder Capital of Europe, Glaswegian Professor Marie Cassidy is no stranger to violent crime. Ireland’s State Pathologist since 1998, she has attended thousands of suspected crime scenes since taking up her position here, a role it appears this tough Scot was made for.


The previous State Pathologist Dr John Harbison was once quoted as saying he entered pathology because, while he wished to study and work in medicine, he didn’t like people all that much. Prof Cassidy, however, is warm and personable, a different woman to the stony-faced lady we see almost weekly captured by news cameras striding towards another scene where foul play is suspected.

 

“Medicine is a fabulous career because there is always a niche for somebody no matter how odd you are!” she laughs, when I mention Jack Harbison’s wry admission. Prof Cassidy admits, however, that she never envisioned herself working in the fields of pathology or forensics.

 

“I know a lot of forensic pathologists for whom their heart’s desire was always to be a forensic pathologist from the time they were in school. But I never had such ambitions. I just kind of fell into it. I did love the laboratory side of medicine and was very happy as a hospital pathologist. Then the opportunity came to go into forensics and I just found it fascinating and I still do.”

 

Admitting that this was in the “deep and darkest 80s”, Prof Cassidy explains that there was then very little available in terms of new technology such as DNA testing.

 

“There were very few innovative techniques at that time, and DNA was just starting to drip in, and being a tool that could be useful. Now it just trips off the tongue, but in those days that wasn’t an option. When I started, things were really pretty basic.”

 

Forensic science then began to rapidly change, however, although Prof Cassidy explains that DNA did not transpire to be the silver bullet those investigating crime thought it would be.

 

“Has it solved all crime? No, of course it hasn’t. We originally had unrealistic expectations in that we thought it would help us solve all crimes but it’s just become another tool we can use. It’s been extremely useful in some cases and not at all in others, depending on the case involved, where it becomes just another piece of evidence.”

 

Forensic pathology remains quite a dynamic field, however, and Prof Cassidy says that it is crucial to keep abreast of “changes in science that may involve us”.

 

The astonishing use of futuristic forensic science is nowhere more evident than in the notoriously popular American television shows such as CSI New York and Miami and Criminal Minds. Their popularity on this side of the Atlantic is unquestionable, and at the end of each episode the usually very complex murder case is solved in full and the killer or killers remanded in custody.

 

Does this affect a forensic pathologist’s work, with perhaps families looking for more answers and quicker results from those investigating their loved one’s death?

 

“I think we all recognise what they call in the US “The CSI Effect”, and people have got huge expectations and in many cases juries were criticising people because there wasn’t a great deal of science employed in particular cases. But I do think most people are more realistic and they understand that a programme like CSI is fiction and based on what people could possibly do in certain situations, and isn’t actually real life,” she says.

 

In fact, Prof Cassidy believes that being a fan of television crime shows may actually help a member of the public called to do their civic duty.

 

“It’s a huge burden to put on somebody, to ask them to listen to all the evidence and work out what’s relevant and what’s not relevant. I’ve got huge admiration for the juries – I don’t know how they do it. I think these programmes are useful because they educate the general public so that we aren’t starting from scratch when we enter the courts – they’ve already got an awareness of things.”

 

Indeed, Prof Cassidy is no stranger to television crime shows, having worked as a consultant on the early series of Taggart, starring the late Mark McManus, something she describes as “great fun”.

It was also rumoured that the main character in the television series Silent Witness was based on her, something she modestly denies.

 

“I think that was because I was the only female forensic pathologist about, so I think it was just people putting two and two together.”

Prof Cassidy also laughs off a “fact” on her Wikipedia page, that she is due to publish a book based on her experiences and has already begun to promote it.

“I would probably never be able to write a book because I’ve got no imagination at all. That’s probably why I am quite good at my job, because I don’t have any imagination. When I see a crime scene, I think of what’s the most likely or common thing that could have happened and I don’t have flights of fantasy.”

 

A very recognisable figure, Prof Cassidy admits that she finds the celebrity aspect of her job “quite bizarre”. “I remember Jack Harbison before I joined him saying that ‘everybody knows who I am’, and I didn’t believe him but when I came over here I realised, yes, everyone did know who he was. I didn’t realise how interested people are in death in this country. But when I’m working I am very focused on what I have to do. I don’t notice the television cameras or photographers – I’ve got tunnel vision when it comes to my work.”

 

Having been greeted with scenes of unimaginative horror over the years, Prof Cassidy explains that she is able to detach herself from what she sees when she reaches a crime scene.

 

“Some cases are obviously horrific. Cases involving children are obviously very difficult and very emotive and the people around me are thinking about their children but I can distance myself from that. I’ve always been able to do that, otherwise I wouldn’t really be able to do my job at all. I appreciate that sometimes we may come across as being hard-hearted but this is what we have to do, and we are no use to the child, no use to their family, if we can’t just concentrate on the job at hand and try and get answers.”

 

A relatively quiet Ireland greeted Prof Cassidy when she first moved here from Glasgow, yet our rates of violent crime have steadily increased in the intervening years.

 

“I was speaking to some of my former Glasgow colleagues a couple of months back and I was asking them how many homicides they had had in the Strathclyde area last year and they said about 60, which is how many we’d had. So we’ve gone from being a backwater to being right at the fore with our figures, unfortunately.”

 

From a high of 300 cases in 2007, last year the Office of the State Pathologist dealt with 199 State cases.

 

Some years ago it emerged that the Office of the State Pathologist had no official driver due to cutbacks, an omission that appeared extraordinary and was hotly debated in Dáil Éireann.

 

In recent years, however, a Garda car and driver has been provided in order to transport Prof Cassidy or one of her deputies to a State case, something she states has made a great difference.

 

The facilities for the Office of the State Pathologist are surprisingly basic, with Prof Cassidy explaining that her and her team work out of portakabins in north Dublin city, while a new building awaits completion.

 

“We don’t have ready access to post mortem facilities so we use the local hospital facilities. That means we are always very dependent on them being available and being able to fit us in. So from that point of view it’s a wee bit frustrating that we don’t have real control over everything we do. In Northern Ireland they have now centralised the service and everything up there goes to Belfast, and we are hoping that we can do something similar once we get our new facility, hopefully in 2012.”

 

It appears that funding crises and inadequate services do not bother Prof Cassidy too much, as she comes across as a woman who just gets on with her job. The State Pathologist is arguably the most important person involved in the investigation of a possible murder, and she certainly gives her role the respect and focus it deserves.

 

The appointment of two Deputy State Pathologists, Dr Michael Curtis and Dr Khalid Jabbar, has made the organisation of the vast workload of the State Pathologist’s Office much easier, explains Prof Cassidy.

 

“We are on call one week in three, then the weeks we are not on call, we are able to fit in court cases, inquests and also our teaching.”

 

Flexibility is thus important as Prof Cassidy may be cited for two or three inquests or court cases each month, in different towns and cities around the country.

 

“You’re never quite sure whether these will go ahead, but the courts are very very good at accommodating us and fitting in around everything else we have to do – we aren’t like some of the other witnesses that have to sit around in court for possibly days and days, we get told exactly when we should be there.”

 

Prof Cassidy admits that things are far more structured than they used to be, particularly important as teaching also comprises a significant portion of the pathologist’s time.

 

Prof Cassidy and her deputies lecture at the RCSI, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin, to both undergraduates and postgraduates.

 

“There are about five courses that we teach on in the various colleges and we fit this in around our various commitments,” she explains.

 

According to Prof Cassidy, there has been a huge change in the way medicine is being taught, both in the UK and Ireland, with many of the courses having evolved to be quite similar across the board.

 

Yet medical students are not being encouraged to enter the field of forensic medicine, she says.

 

“The medics don’t get taught forensic medicine anymore so the students don’t get to experience it and see what it’s all about. And of course that’s a problem for us with recruitment because people don’t think of it as an option. So every summer we take up to eight students in to our buildings and give them projects and try and get them interested. If we even got one person interested every few years that would be great. We’ve got a couple in the pipeline from when we first started taking students, and hopefully they will decide to enter forensic pathology.”

 

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