New Zealand Law Society - Fifty years of forensic medicine in New Zealand

Fifty years of forensic medicine in New Zealand

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My name is Jack Drummond MB ChB (1970).

What a funny way to start an article on 50 years of forensic medicine in New Zealand!

Actually, it isn’t really because these are the only qualifications I held during my first 19 years of giving forensic evidence. To make matters worse, I had no formal training in forensic medicine until around 1995, so perhaps, I can entitle this journey “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”. Did my lack of qualifications become obvious? Probably not, as most of my peers in the Police Medical Officer (PMO) role were even less qualified. We were an untrained, un-peer reviewed and unaudited group of mostly GPs who had inherited the job.

My initial entry into forensic work was in Dunedin in the early 1970s when New Zealand was in the grip of a drink-driving blitz. On some nights, I would see 10 people, and interestingly, two separate charges would be laid: one of Driving with Excess Blood Alcohol and the other of Driving under the Influence and Being Incapable of Proper Control. A first offence on the latter charge resulted in a seven-day stay in Dunedin Prison. A second offence was rewarded with 21 days’ accommodation in the said prison, as one of my friends (a member of the clergy and now ex-priest) found out. He reported the experience as not being too bad, as the jailer would come on duty with a one-quart of gin and a chess board. “Those were the days”.

I returned to Palmerston North in late 1973 and continued in my role as a PMO until 2000.

This was at a time when such animals were in short supply and my duty roster varied between a 1-in-1 and 1-in-3 roster. Duties included dealing with sexual assaults, blood alcohols, sick and injured prisoners (many from dog bites), certification of life extinct and attendance at accidents and AOS callouts. General care and welfare of Police officers and entrance medicals were also included. An average week comprised five to seven call-outs.

After being asked to review a case (R v Donnelly) for Les Atkins QC, it became apparent to me that a certain amount of non-scientific, anecdotal medical nonsense was being produced in court (if only we knew how much of it was being expounded). It became obvious that unless we were going to continue in forensic isolation, we were going to have to change the nature of our training and our attitudes. Fortunately, I met a wandering professor from the Victoria Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) who invited me to enrol in a new course on forensic medicine run by VIFM for Monash University. This changed me forever. I graduated with a Diploma in Forensic Medicine in 2005 and a subsequent Masters Degree in 2008.

To complete my personal story, in 2005 after much lobbying, the New Zealand Police created a new position as National Coordinator of Forensic Medicine, which I occupied until mid-2019. My role encompassed the training, peer review and quality auditing of New Zealand’s PMOs. Additionally, I provided general assistance to districts and coroners, and the giving of expert evidence on selected cases. In my period of tenure, we have advanced from 50 PMOs (1 woman) to 75 PMOs (12 women).

Enough about me. Let’s look at the changes that have since occurred.

  1.  DNA

    This is surely the greatest advance in the history of trace evidence; a wonderful double-edged sword. There has been amazing progress with national databases and connection/collaboration with those of other countries. The advent of STR (single tandem repeat) replication has eliminated the need for large amounts of sample. Both the use of mitochondrial DNA and sex-linked DNA have recorded great advances. Similarly, the value of familial sampling is of great advantage. We are fortunate to have such a progressive ESR. Conversely, the other side of the sword incorporates issues of contamination (the Farah Jama case in Melbourne), the planting of evidence, error, and trying to obtain a unanimous understanding/conclusion from judges, counsel and juries. There is also difficulty in expelling the absurd myth of: “If there is no DNA, then the person was not there”.

  2. The emergence of large-scale psychoactive drug use

    This has resulted in a plethora of violent crimes and a marked increase both in domestic and irrational violence, as well as escalating instances of sudden death from these substances. Similarly, the increased incidence of impaired driving has necessitated the implementation of new measures to deal with the problems.

  3. The implementation of roadside technology for blood alcohol and drugs

    The latter is still evolving.

  4. More “friendly” courts

    An emerging willingness of the courts to allow experts to explain evidence in accordance with their own particular style.

  5. The emergence of sexual assault examination as a separate entity

    This has resulted in the establishment of a well-trained group of sexual assault trained and audited doctors and nurses. It commenced as DSAC (later to become MEDSAC – Medical Sexual Assault Clinicians Aotearoa). This is a well-funded organisation which currently serves all districts, except the West Coast.

  6. The use of audio-visual aids to obtain expert evidence

    There has been a marked increase in use of this technology, which has probably led to much better researched local evidence.

  7. The proliferation of prescribed medications that may have interactive and impairing effects

    Many of the cases referred to me revolve around this issue, particularly as related to driving.

  8. Issues pertaining to the new strangulation offence legislation (section 189A of the Crimes Act 1961)

    I believe this is a minefield; we have yet to see how it plays out.

  9. Wonderful new techniques

    For example, the use of human leucocyte antigen alleles in complex DNA samples.

Whilst we enter into an exciting era of rigid examination of new techniques, I believe that currently the defence is under-resourced and further steps should be taken to level the playing field. It is likely that I will instigate a consultative forensic service.

Dr Jack Drummond, MB ChB, M. Forensic Med (Monash), FRNZCGP, FRACGP, FRCPA (Forensics), has a long experience in forensic medicine and was National Co-ordinator of Forensic Medicine with the New Zealand Police until 2019.

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