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Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Low autopsy rate seen abetting murderers
Diet efforts mount to boost postmortems but staff, funds few
Kanae Kijima, recently sentenced to hang for killing three boyfriends, may have been arrested before the second and third murders if police had conducted an autopsy on the first victim, Takao Terada, who was found dead in his Tokyo home in 2009.
Police deemed his death a suicide and did not perform an autopsy, believing he died of carbon monoxide poisoning from charcoal briquettes he set alight in an enclosed space — a form of suicide that had become common, even for groups of strangers meeting, often via the Internet, just to kill themselves this way. They now believe Kijima drugged him and lit the coals, as appeared to be the case with the other two men she was convicted of killing, but have no postmortem evidence to support the drugging allegations, at least with him.
Terada's death is one of a multitude that police, not suspecting foul play, refrain from ordering an autopsy for. Even if they have suspicions, in many cases the next of kin must grant their permission for a postmortem.
It's usually only when the deceased bears some sort of marks of a struggle or attack that police seek a postmortem, but even then not always. Thus such procedures are rare, as are the manpower, funds and facilities to perform them.
But there's an effort afoot in the Diet to change this. A nonpartisan parliamentary group plans to submit bills this month to boost the autopsy rate.
According to the National Police Agency, only about 10 percent of "unnatural deaths," whose cause is not immediately clear, are subject to postmortems, partly because there are few autopsy experts and minimal financial support.
Sweden on the other hand conducts postmortems on 89.1 percent of suspicious deaths, while the rate for England and Wales is 45.8 percent, and 19.3 percent in Germany in 2009.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan recently agreed with the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito on two bills to promote wider probes into causes of death and to improve the way police investigate deaths. The legislation is expected to be passed during the current Diet session, which ends in June.
Experts welcome the move. "I think it's worth a try although the bills may not be perfect," said Hirotaro Iwase, a professor in the forensic medicine department at Chiba University who performs autopsies in Chiba Prefecture. University forensic medicine departments conduct postmortems when police suspect a crime has occurred. "I hope the situation will get better under the new legislation."
To rectify the manpower and budgetary shortages, the bill to boost autopsies pledges that the government will, in two years, open institutions nationwide to investigate suspicious deaths and empower more universities to teach and conduct research on forensic medicine.
"The government needs to support forensic scientists systematically, as there is a manpower shortage," said Hakubun Shimomura, a key LDP member who joined the nonpartisan discussions on the bills.
"The number of experts won't suddenly increase, but it's important that the government helps so there will be a noticeable change starting in five to 10 years."
But urgent measures are needed now, as the forensic departments at the nation's universities are "already collapsing" because the government has long ignored the importance of autopsies and thus allocated few funds to remedy the problem, Chiba University's Iwase said.
Hirosaki University in Aomori Prefecture, for example, didn't carry out any autopsies for 1½ years between 2009 and 2011 because it had only one forensics professor. Other prefectures are in similar binds, Iwase said. "It's extremely tough to perform autopsies and write death certificates on one's own."
Chiba University may count itself fortunate in that it has four full-time forensic pathologists in its forensics department.
But five out of seven technical specialists work on a contract basis and every year they handle more and more corpses, particularly because of the phenomenon known as "kodokushi," in which elderly people who live alone die alone admid the nation's rapidly aging society.
"Nine years ago they handled about 150 bodies annually," Iwase said. "Now there are about 300."
To double the autopsy rate, the government will have to double the ranks of forensic experts to 340. But at present, there are no financial incentives for the job.
"Performing autopsies is tough and risky, but our salaries are low. Students are discouraged when they learn my salary as a professor is lower than medical interns," Iwase said.
But he added components of the bills can help improve the situation.
For instance, under the new legislation, police will be able to order autopsies without getting the next of kin's consent. They will only have to state their reasons for seeking a postmortem.
At present most prefectures require the next of kin to consent to an autopsy, a situation police believe works to conceal murders.
Places where the family's consent is not required include the 23 wards of Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe and Osaka — all of which have their own medical examiner systems to conduct autopsies in the event of suspicious deaths.
The new legislation will also hold police responsible for investigating cases in which deaths did not appear to be due to natural causes.
"This is a big change, since nobody has been legally accountable to date," said Kenji Ishihara, an aide of DPJ member and former health minister Ritsuo Hosokawa who was responsible for pushing the bills with the opposition.
Hosokawa, who has been involved in the issue since 2004, played a key role in drafting a DPJ bill in 2007 to increase autopsies.
The DPJ was the main opposition force at the time and the bill gained little traction.
Ishihara added that police will not only investigate suspicious deaths but also those blamed for disasters and accidents in an effort to initiate preventive steps.
Iwase of Chiba University said forensic scientists hope things improve in a few years because they are "exhausted" from their overwhelming, understaffed workload.
Even if the bills bring no immediate drastic improvement, they will probably be passed thanks to the continued debate in the Diet, he said. "The political process is important for change. We have to keep discussing what is important for the public."