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'Practically Everybody Is Capable of Murder': An Interview with a Forensic Pathologist

If you die a violent death, chances are you'll soon be on a cold table in front of someone like Eva Schemer.

by Philipp Bürkler
Jun 4 2015, 2:40pm

All photos by Yves Suter.

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

Let's face it—you can't have a detective show without at least one corpse. That's just how it is. Corpses and pathologists are to detective shows what greasy food is to beer. Just a whole lot gnarlier. I wanted to know if a pathologist's job was just as gruesome as CSI made it out to be, so I gave Dr. Eva Schemer a quick call.

Schemer is the Head Doctor and Director of the Forensic Pathology Institute at Basil University. Apart from having a inexplicably long job title, she's also a rather brave woman, doing a job that the vast majority of people reading this wouldn't dare touch.

She deals with corpses every single day. All kinds of corpses, too—mutilated corpses, charred corpses, dismembered corpses. Basically, all the corpses. Each and every day, it's Eva's job to try and figure out just how people met their bitter end.

VICE: Dr. Schemer, what kind of corpses generally end up on your "desk"?
Dr. Eva Schemer: We get all the folks who are assumed to not have died of natural causes. People who die unexpectedly or suddenly. Or people who have met violent deaths—whether by accident or in an event involving a third party. We try to figure out what happened.

How does one go about that?
You need to inspect the corpse from head to toe. We look for traces of injuries and examine their clothing. We ask ourselves questions like: Do the tears in the fabric correctly correspond to the gunshot wounds? Once we have the answers to these questions, the prosecutor decides whether or not we need to cut the corpse open and examine it from the inside. Which is what we call an autopsy.

Isn't it tough to be confronted with corpses every day?
Disfigured people are part of my everyday routine. We react differently to the dead people because we don't know them. But how do you define "tough"? Think about a surgeon that has to clean out a septic stomach or something—that's tough too. "Tough" is a subjective term. Our professional routines allow us to keep a certain distance from certain things and enable us to do our job properly. But, of course, it can be unpleasant at times.

Could you give an example of a time it's been unpleasant?
There was a murder a while ago. The body was completely hacked to bits, poured into concrete, and then thrown in a river. We weren't able to find all the body parts, but we solved the case.

Sounds like a horror movie.
These extreme cases are quite uncommon. Unlike murder cases in movies, real-life killers are usually a lot less imaginative. Most of them just see red and hit their victim over the head with whatever they can find. Or they pull out a knife or a gun or something. Premeditated murders—like you see in movies—are actually pretty rare.

Do you ever watch shows like CSI? Are they realistic?
Yes, they are. I quite like watching shows like that. Individual scenes from CSI can actually be very realistic. Those kinds of productions usually put a lot of effort into making things are real as possible. What's unrealistic is actually solving a case in 45 minutes.

In your line of work, you must deal with a lot of liars.
Yeah, people lie a lot. Sometimes people leave facts out because they think they're unimportant. A lot of people simply can't remember some things. There are also cases where people purposely don't tell the truth because they don't want to incriminate someone. There's also those liars that consciously aim to hurt someone.

Each case is quite different. It's our job to decipher the truth. It should be added that practically everybody is capable of murder. Whether they actually go through with it or not has a lot to do with how much a person has their life under control. That and how capable they are of dealing with their feelings.

I feel like oftentimes on TV, it's the next of kin that has to identify the body.
The police are quite keen on this procedure but we aren't. Misidentifications happen all the time. A dead person has no facial expression and looks very different to a sleeping person. Sometimes, even close relatives aren't able to recognize their loved ones. They can often be in shock if someone has died suddenly or has been the victim of a crime. Or they just point-blank refuse to believe that their own sister is lying on the table in front of them. Usually, we prefer to use dental records or DNA to make an identification.

What if the body has been burned?
That complicates things. In those cases, we rely predominantly on teeth or DNA. But DNA analysis only works if there's tissue that hasn't been burned. Most of the time a person isn't completely burned, only partially. So, there's usually some tissue that we can utilize.

Do you have to prepare the corpse for burial after you perform an autopsy?
Yeah, we do that too. Our professionals prepare the body as much as they can. Even with head injuries, they're capable of preparing the body for a wake, so that the relatives are able to say goodbye. Shortly after the examination, once the prosecutor has released the body, the deceased can be transported to the cemetery. Relatives usually see the body for the first time in a designated space at the cemetery.

Like I said, the way you see people identifying the body in the movies is not exactly what happens in real life. When it happens, we obviously try to prepare the next of kin for what they are about to see. And we're always prepared for people fainting at the sight of the body.