BLOOD HAS A VOICE: Tales from the autopsy table – Dr Hestelle van Staden

Blood has a voice.  That is the title of a book written by one of South Africa’s top forensic pathologists, Dr. Hestelle van Staden, who has conducted thousands of autopsies – and is one of between only 60 and 70 qualified specialist forensic pathologists in the country. As such she is often the last voice of a deceased person, a victim’s only chance for justice, a family’s only hope for answers. And in this interview with BizNews, she speaks about how the dead speak to her. Dr van Staden, whose expert testimony in court could mean the difference between a guilty verdict and an acquittal, also details “the most harrowing case” she has been involved in; reveals how a person who is found hanged in an apparent suicide can “tell” her that he or she was in fact murdered; and explains why a person found with a gunshot wound and gunshot residue on his hand, may not have committed suicide. “…you simply cannot assume that what you are seeing is exactly what is there,” she says. – Chris Steyn

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introductions
  • 00:48 – Dr Hestelle van Staden on indicators of a framed suicide
  • 03:07 – Dr van Staden on cases of framed suicide that she has worked on
  • 03:47 – On the autopsy process
  • 05:52 – On the indicators of a ‘crime of passion’
  • 08:48 – How many autopsies she has conducted
  • 10:12 – On testifying in court
  • 13:26 – On being driven by justice and truth
  • 14:24 – One case she will never forget
  • 17:22 – On the number of forensic pathologists in SA
  • 19:38 – Advice for people seeking a quality post-mortem for a loved one
  • 20:36 – Concludes

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Highlights from the interview

Blood has a voice. 

That is the title of a book written by one of South Africa’s top forensic pathologists, Dr. Hestelle van Staden, who has conducted over 7 000 autopsies. 

She is often the last voice of a deceased person, a victim’s only chance for justice, a family’s only hope for answers.

And in this interview with BizNews, she speaks about how the dead speak to her.

She reveals how a person who is found hanged in an apparent suicide can “tell” her that he or she was in fact murdered.

“Most people are not able to hang somebody else who has already died. Because if you want to basically frame a death as a suicide whilst it’s actually a murder, that person needs to be dead by the time you hang them. Or you need to physically hang them. And it’s very difficult to lift a person up, to attain that hanging stance where the person is alive because they’re going to fight you. So that person would either have to be dead or they would actually have to be incapacitated to such an extent that they cannot offer any resistance. So what we would look for is any defensive type of injuries, the position of the ligature around the neck…

“…the most recent case that’s come to mind is the Jason Rohde case…he was convicted of his wife’s murder, his wife Susan’s murder at the Spier Wine Farm a few years ago. And in that case, it was staged hanging where in fact she was murdered before.”

Dr van Staden explains why one cannot automatically assume that a person found with a gunshot wound and gunshot residue on his hand, committed suicide. 

“…you simply cannot assume that what you are seeing is exactly what is there. It would actually be plausible for somebody to hold somebody else’s, the victim’s hand, and force them to shoot themselves, which would then become a murder. And there you would expect gunshot residue on the hands. You would expect the typical findings of the suicide, such as a contact range gunshot wound or very close range gunshot wound, where it might not be exactly what it seems.”

Dr van Staden, whose expert testimony in court could mean the difference between a guilty verdict and an acquittal in court, also speaks about “the most harrowing case” she has been involved in: that of a little girl who had been raped and murdered. “And…as I sit here, I actually get goosebumps because I remember the person that was eventually arrested, and this is the most I’m going to say about him, actually immediately asked, who spilled the beans? He needs to get back at that person, you know, and there was such an evil presence surrounding all of that. 

Read more: THE KILLING FIELDS OF KZN: Political assassins killing for contracts & Municipal funds transferred at gunpoint…

“It was just such an absolutely shocking turn out to this case and there were issues that then had to be specifically elucidated in court, which is why I testified. And I think that’s a case that very clearly demonstrates how important it is for us to be able not only to record findings very exactly, but also in how we convey it.

“And that’s actually the function of a forensic pathologist, to be able to explain medical findings to laypeople in terms of medicine, because I mean, obviously judges are not laypeople, but in terms of medicine they are. That’s what we need to do. We need to assist the court to interpret medical findings. And in that case, it was of utmost importance. Otherwise, this guy might have walked.”

Instead he got a life sentence.

She is deeply concerned about the lack of highly qualified and experienced pathologists in South Africa. “At any given time, there’s only about 60 to 70 forensic pathologists, qualified specialist forensic pathologists in the country….there’s just too few of us…And unfortunately we are bleeding forensic pathologists. As soon as we qualify them, they either leave and work in private, in private other capacities, usually not as pathologists anymore, or they leave the country.”

Meanwhile Dr Van Staden – who works both for the State and in private practice, remains committed and driven to honour victims with justice. “The one thing is the justice. And the other thing is to be able to give families answers. It’s horrible answers sometimes, but at least they know that somebody has looked at their deceased loved one with care and attention and they can answer the questions.”

*All photographs of Dr Hestelle van Staden by Theana van Bruegem

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