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Policing expert testimony in a death investigation: Medical opinion as legal fact

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Queensland University of Technology ePrints Archive
Keywords
  • Pathologist
  • Coroner
  • Death
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Abstract

Within coronial investigations, pathologists are called upon to given evidence as to cause of death. This evidence is given great weight by the coroners; after all, scientific ‘truth’ is widely deemed to be far more reliable than legal ‘opinion’. The purpose of this paper is to examine the ontological and epistemological status of that evidence, from the perspectives of both the pathologists and the coroners. As part of an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant, interviews were conducted with seven pathologists and 10 coroners from within the Queensland coronial system. Contrary to expectations, and the work of philosophers of science, such as Feyerabend (1975), pathologists did not present their findings in terms of unequivocal facts or objective truths relating to causes of death. Rather, their evidence was largely presented as ‘educated opinion’ based upon ‘the weight of evidence’. It was actually the coroners who translated that opinion into ‘medical fact’ within the proceedings of their death investigations, arguably as a consequence of the administrative necessity to reach a clear-cut finding as to cause of death, and on the basis of their own understanding of the ontology of medical knowledge. These findings support Latour’s (2010) claim that law requires a fundamentally different epistemology to science, and that science is not entirely to blame for the extravagant truth-claims made on its behalf

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