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Forensics for Justice’s founder Paul O’Sullivan was riveted by a new book from forensic pathologist Hester van Staden called ‘Blood has a voice.’ He reckons anyone interested in crime will be too – and if he were minister of police, it would be required reading for every police officer who handles inquests, homicides or motor vehicle accidents. Just enough detail in the book, he reckons, to get you “smelling the autopsy room”.
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BLOOD HAS A VOICE, by Hestelle van Staden, published by Tafelberg: Book Review
By Paul O’Sullivan*
I recently attended a book launch of the above book, at Rosebank Mall’s, Exclusive Books.
Having spent the best part of my life in law enforcement, or crime investigation, which included many hours spent at various autopsies of homicide (murder) victims, I decided this was a must-read book for me.
At my age, the time between visits to specialist doctors, seems to be much less than it used to be. Twenty or thirty years ago, my only visit to the doctor was my annual aviation medical, which is mandatory to retain my pilot’s licence. Nowadays, I have also had to meet doctors for treatment on my ailing spine, old fractures on my feet and arms and a brush or two with oncologists. Without fail, I have met most of these doctors many times, especially my Aviation Medical Officer, or AMO, who I see very autumn, for the almost forty years I have been in South Africa. He used to be a young doctor when I first met him, but now I wonder if he’s still going to be in business when I do my renewal in March each year. I’ve decided that when my AMO has stopped practising, I’m going to sell my plane and pack up flying.
The main benefit with visiting my AMO once a year, is I get to fly for another year. The secondary benefit is that he usually picks up anything of concern and points me in the right direction and off I go to see a specialist, which sometimes results in going under the knife. Thirty or forty years ago, the AMO visits were in and out in less than half an hour, once every five years. Then it became bi-annual thorough checks and now annual very thorough checks.
Having read Hestelle van Staden’s book; BLOOD HAS A VOICE, one of the first things I realised is that she normally only sees a ‘patient’ once. And when she does see that patient, she’s the last medical doctor the patient in question, gets to be seen by! She is a Forensic Pathologist and regularly performs autopsies in cases where the death is classed as unnatural. For that reason, I hope I never need an ‘appointment’ if that’s the right word, with Hestelle van Staden, or her colleagues.
Her book is an inside story of how a young female got the desire to become a forensic pathologist and how she stuck to that desire right through matric, university and her career, until she was, as she is now, at the top of her profession.
Although it states on the cover that the book is ‘Not for sensitive readers’, it’s an absolute MUST READ for every police officer in South Africa that handles inquests, homicides, or motor vehicle accidents, often referred to as MVA’s or Road Traffic Accidents, RTA’s. It’s also a must read for every lawyer that works on such cases, whatever side of the fence he or she is on. If you are an avid whodunnit reader, you will also be able to make good use of the broad mix of cases that Hestelle unpacks. Not all unnatural deaths are homicide, many unnatural deaths are, apart from MVA’s, suicide, medical related issues and sometimes medical malpractice or negligence.
Despite being an Afrikaans speaker by birth and upbringing, the use of the English in the book is 100% top-notch. Knowing that most of her audience are non-medical people, she has explained in sufficient detail, but not too much, some of the medico-legal terminology in use. She also demonstrates her tremendous level of humanity and compassion when dealing with the sensitive subject of death and of autopsy on bodies of deceased persons.
She goes into just enough detail, to draw the reader into her world, but not so much detail, that the reader can smell the autopsy room. The cases she unpacks as typical examples include causes of death that vary from natural death, strangulation, murder by bullet, suicide and MVA’s. More than once, the expression ‘evil’ pops up, when discussing how some of the cases have resulted in her having to carry out an autopsy.
When I used to be a homicide detective, my next stop after crime scene preservation and evidence management, was always the autopsy room, to ensure that the Forensic Pathologist had enough information from the scene of crime to assist her in assisting me to gather evidence. Sadly, apart from the very few dedicated homicide detectives, this practice is now very rare.
It’s also now common practice that the final postmortem report is delayed by years, due to backlogs in toxicology reports, which sometimes take as long as seven years to come back. This results in an accused person (for example in the case of murder by poisoning) quite literally evading justice until the toxicology report is completed.
The laboratory results delay is caused by corruption within the Forensic Services and/or the police. It’s me that says that, NOT Hestelle!
If any good can flow out of Hestelle’s book, it MUST be that Forensic Laboratory reports would be returned within weeks, not years and EVERY single homicide detective would read this book and show up at the autopsy, so that he or she can get the inside track on catching the homicide suspect. This would greatly reduce crime, as the criminal justice system would be more effective and the risk of getting caught, would reduce the number of prolific offenders, perhaps also reducing the workload of ‘gritty’ professionals like Hestelle van Staden in the process.
Hestelle’s WhatsApp profile says a lot about her, as do many people’s WhatsApp profiles. There is a pink circle with the words “grit & grace” inside it and the words below the circle state the following: –
The dead cannot cry out for justice. It is a duty of the living to do so for them.Lois McMaster
Hestelle has also demonstrated superb knowledge of the criminal justice system, including the use of the forms known as SAP 180’s, which have to accompany every deceased body that goes to the mortuary.
One of the important takeaways in the book is that the body is not the person. The person when alive, included a body and the soul, or spirit. The soul departs the body when the body has ceased to be alive to carry the soul. Depending on your religious belief, this is actually quite comforting to understand.
Of the various autopsies she uses to demonstrate what she has gone through over the last twenty years, Hestelle shows total respect for the deceased remains she works with and always protects their dignity. She does this, because she knows that her appointment with her patient, means a lot to that persons’ family members.
For that reason, and because she is a true professional, if I am unfortunate enough to end my time on planet earth due to unnatural causes, I hope the last doctor that sees me is Hestelle van der Staden, so that if it is needed, my family can find justice.
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*Although an engineer by profession, Paul O’Sullivan was involved in Law Enforcement Operations in the UK, Cyprus, the USA, Zimbabwe and South Africa between 1973 and 2002. He set up and runs corruption investigative charity; Forensics for Justice and last year published a best-selling book titled STOP ME IF YOU CAN. He is also a Certified Fraud Examiner and a Criminologist.
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