Medical advice is often needed to uncover crimes. The police and the judiciary also get this from employees of RHÖN-KLINIKUM AG, including in Gießen and Frankfurt (Oder).
One Sunday morning 14 years ago, Prof. Dr. Reinhard Dettmeyer’s phone. When the then senior forensic surgeon took off in Bonn, a young colleague reports: A death in the correctional facility – should she go? Death in the prison – that usually means: suicide by hanging. Pure routine, Dettmeyer thinks, and sends the colleague off. He schedules the autopsy for Monday morning, a suicide does not require weekend work. Almost 24 hours later, the prisoner’s body lies in front of Dettmeyer on the metal autopsy table. The strangling rope is still neatly tied around his neck. The forensic doctor is puzzled: Hair is trapped in the knot. The case is clear: it is murder.
Today Dettmeyer is director of the Institute for Forensic Medicine at UKGM in Giessen. Again and again he and his team appear as experts in well-known criminal cases, most recently in the case of the murder of the Kassel District President Walter Lübcke. The case described here went through the media as the “Siegburg torture murder”. He is particularly fond of Dettmeyer from his 35 years of autopsy activity. Because he was particularly cruel. But also because it shows particularly well what is important in forensic medicine: take a close look. And what it can do in the best case scenario: bring the truth to light. Dettmeyer puts it more soberly: “The task of our subject is to answer medical and scientific questions about the judiciary.” And he usually succeeds in doing so.
Search for clues
The most explosive questions are without a doubt those that deal with unnatural deaths: What did a person die of? Was it an accident or a violent crime? If it was third-party fault, is there any evidence of the perpetrator?
In order to find answers, the public prosecutor’s office turns on forensic medicine. She takes a very close look at two things: the place where the body was found and the body. “We always first go through the area around the corpse with forensic evidence,” explains Dettmeyer, director of the institute. They can give a lot of conclusions about the time and cause of death: pajamas as clothing, medication lying around as an indication of suicide or a knife as a possible murder weapon. Only then is the body examined. First on site, then in the so-called section hall.
The word appears as plain black lettering above an unadorned white plastic door. Dettmeyer leads up a short flight of stairs into the windowless, tiled room. There are a few dead flies on the floor, it smells sweet and strong. “We had a rotten body this morning,” he explains apologetically. Had he got used to such smells? In the evenings, the putrefaction gases still sometimes give him headaches, he admits.
Dettmeyer and his team carry out around 700 autopsies every year.
How to proceed is strictly defined. “We always have to open all three body cavities, ie the abdomen, chest and head,” explains Dettmeyer, “even if the cause of death seems to be a knife stab in the heart.” A series of samples is taken for this: tissue samples from all organs, urine, bile , Vitreous fluid from the eye and of course blood. Everything is meticulously documented.
Strong nerves and professional distance
“Many people have negative associations with autopsies,” says Dettmeyer. Like an operation, this involves targeted preparation. “I can’t just start snipping off with my knife,” the 62-year-old makes clear.
He also sees the media as being responsible for the forensic medicine ‘s bad image: “It’s pretty bold how we are sometimes portrayed in crime novels. Preferably next to the autopsy table with a sandwich and a cigarette in hand. “
Repentant and hardened, as in some cases in the “Tatort”, that is of course not for forensic doctors, but they are probably “professionally distant”. “I have to reconstruct how a victim’s injuries were inflicted on my autopsy table. But I can’t imagine the pain it had, it would burden me, ”said Dettmeyer.
You have to be mentally stable for the job. He says he has never dreamed of his work. But the everyday life of a forensic doctor is not always about corpses, murder and manslaughter. Was the person who caused the accident drunk while driving? Is Mr. Müller really little Lukas’s father? What traces point to the perpetrator of a kiosk robbery? Dettmeyer and his team also deal with such questions: “Every year we analyze around 4,000 blood samples from people who have become suspicious in traffic.” Another large – and growing – part of the work is the investigation of victims of violence. However, this is not only carried out by forensic medical institutes.
Really a fall from the changing table?
If a child in the Frankfurt (Oder) area is suspected of using violence, it usually ends up in the children’s center of the Frankfurt (Oder) Clinic. In a so-called violence victim investigation, the doctors investigate the following questions: Is it a case of child welfare? Were certain injuries caused by an accident or was there violence involved?
“There are relatively many injuries that make us prick up our ears,” explains Dr. Kerstin Lohse, chief physician at the Clinic for Pediatric Surgery.
A thigh fracture in a child who cannot even walk or bruises that are not on the shin but on the back of the leg – it quickly becomes clear that it wasn’t a fall.
However, whether it is a risk to the child’s welfare, in which the youth welfare office should intervene, or just an individual case, usually needs to be discussed more intensively. “As long as this has not been clarified for certain, we will first take the child into an inpatient facility to get them out of the acute dangerous situation,” says Lohse. Then these cases are discussed in an interdisciplinary team.
A pediatrician, a surgeon and a psychiatrist, a gynecologist, a pediatric nurse and, in some cases, an employee of the youth welfare office are present at these so-called child protection conferences. We weigh together what is best for the child. In order to be particularly sure about the decision, further examinations are usually carried out and discussions are held: with the parents, forensic medicine, the responsible pediatrician. Only then does a complete picture of the situation emerge.
Taking the child out of the family, emphasizes Dr. Stefan Schreier, senior physician at the children’s clinic, is always the last resort: “In the best case scenario, the child can return to the family – with the certainty that such a violent incident will not happen again.” The results of the child protection conferences and the documentation of the investigation into victims of violence – Photos of the injuries, protocols and samples – are given to the youth welfare office and from there to the court if necessary. From then on, the police and the judiciary take over. Testify in court yourself? He only had to do that once, says Schreier. The team holds around five to eight child protection conferences a year. With Corona, however, this could change for a while, the pediatrician fears. The isolation in lockdown favored child abuse, and school and kindergarten closings have eliminated important control mechanisms. Schreier: “We have to see what else is in store for us.”