Following the untimely and mysterious death of Bukola Olayemi, her parents became suspicious about the circumstances surrounding her demise. Mr. Olayemi explained that his wife had passed away due to severe chest pain, as she had chosen to use anointing oil instead of seeking medical help. Her condition had worsened, leading to her death.
Their neighbours, on the other hand, claimed to have witnessed Mr. Olayemi throwing a metal stool at his wife, causing significant chest injuries. They reported frequent loud arguments and disturbances in their home. There was no way to confirm which report was true as Bukola’s parents were absent from the morgue and during the burial owing to the taboo forbidding parents from burying their children.
As the only viable option, Bukola’s father insisted on conducting an autopsy. The autopsy revealed no trace of anointing oil in her system. Instead, it showed signs of bruises, sores, chest indentation, and lung bleeding, suggesting physical trauma was the likely cause of her death.
What is an autopsy?
An autopsy is a specialised medical examination carried out to determine the cause and manner of an individual’s death. The procedure gives the medical personnel the liberty to conduct examinations and surgical operations, which were not feasible when the patient was alive.
An autopsy is, most times, carried out by a doctor or a pathologist. In criminal investigation, an autopsy report is used to establish or corroborate the cause of an individual’s death, especially when prosecuting a murder or manslaughter case.
When should an autopsy be carried out?
The Anatomy Act 2004 mandates that 24 hours should have elapsed from the time of the death of the deceased person before any form of examination can be conducted on the corpse.
Who is a coroner?
A coroner is an official who investigates the cause and circumstances of suspicious or unexplained deaths. A coroner is not necessarily a medical professional. They are, most times, government officials. They work closely with medical professionals to accurately determine the cause of an individual’s death.
What are Coronial Laws?
These are the legislative provisions that spell out the responsibilities and obligations of coroners as they relate to their determining the cause of death. These laws specify the procedures, powers, and role of coroners in performing enquiries into suspicious or unexplained deaths.
What form of autopsy report is recognised by the Courts?
According to judicial precedents, an autopsy report must be written, not verbal and can be admissible as evidence in court only when a medical practitioner conducts such (be it a pathologist or entomologist) practising in a government hospital. In other words, the autopsy report must emanate from a Government Hospital to be admissible in court- (Bamitale V. State).
It is also not mandatory that the particular medical practitioner who carried out the autopsy report should be the one present in court to tender it in evidence.
Coronial laws in Nigeria
Aside from the aforementioned case laws, it seems safe to say that there is a huge lacuna in Nigeria’s legislative enactments, as not so many provisions are made with respect to Coronial Laws, save for the Coroner’s Law of Lagos State and a very few Sections of the Criminal Code, (Section 242) that simple criminalises misconduct as regards corpses and provides for the punishments.
The establishment of Coronial laws is important because they give an unbiased, untainted report of what caused a deceased’s death, especially when the death is sudden, unexpected or suspicious. They help in identifying and monitoring potential public health issues and provide closure for family members, as was the case of Bukola’s parents. They also-
- Promote accountability, transparency and lawful conduct within human interaction.
- Prevent false allegations as to the individual responsible for the death of a deceased.
- Provide a strong corroborative aid to submissions during criminal investigations, litigations and court judgments.
- Serve as an important piece of evidence in insurance claims.
- They also serve as a means of debunking unfounded rumours or false allegations about the cause of an individual’s death.
- In a murder or manslaughter case, the prosecution has the duty to establish that it was the very act of the accused person(s) that caused the death of the deceased (Adeleye V. State). In most cases, this is where an autopsy report comes in very handy.
Are there instances where an autopsy would be deemed unnecessary? Yes. These instances are-
- On the clear instruction of the individual prior to their demise (Section 3, Anatomy Act, 2004)
- In a case when the cause of death is very obvious- for instance, a victim of an arson.
In conclusion, it is very glaring that Nigeria’s coronial laws contribute, in no small measure, to ensuring justice is served, public health and safety are monitored, and there is transparency in human interactions. Hence, the almost nonexistent of coronial laws needs to be addressed. There is a need to enact a robust, all-inclusive coronial law that both serves the interest of justice and also safeguards the health, social and general well-being of its citizens.