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Psychological Autopsy: Evidence for Unexplainable deaths?

The Journey of Psychology as an independent discipline in India, began with the establishment of the Department of Experimental Psychology, in 1916, in Calcutta University. Since then it has become an important part to consider in many fields, for example: marketing, organisational cultures, consultants and even in simple individual life. However, in Law which is an extremely important field, aimed at providing justice and relief to people, still has to work on implementing psychology in its best ways possible.

In today�s era, law and psychology work together in providing fair and reasonable justice to people in need.

So why such an important concept of Forensic Psychological Autopsy is still not admissible in court of law?

What is Psychological Autopsy (PA)?

Autopsy, also called necropsy or post-mortem examination is dissection and examination of a dead body and its organs and structures. This differs from psychological autopsy where the brain of the deceased is the main area of focus to find out the mental state of the deceased before he/she had passed away. So in simple words, a psychological post mortem.

Similar to a physical autopsy, the psychological autopsy attempts to explain why a person has taken their life or was it a murder, by analysing medical records, interviewing friends and family, and conducting research into a person's state of mind prior to their death.

This test is therefore carried out in cases where the death is unexplained, unnatural or in some cases unexplainable and also where no accused has been named; mostly in cases of suicides and incidents involving suicide bombers. And it helps in finding out whether there was any mental pressure on the person or any drug abuses, etc.

This test is carried out by an appointed team of police officers, psychiatrists, psychologists and even forensic medical doctors. They put forth the complete medical history of the deceased including but not limiting to all the medical records, painkillers consumed, drugs taken or prescribed, etc. The medical doctors even analyse the brain tissue taken from post mortem to analyse if there are any toxic substances present like drug abuse or overdose to help in solving the case.

On the other hand, psychologists and psychiatrist along with investigating officers develop the complete profile of the deceased by interviewing the close relatives, friends, neighbours and family members which gives them an clear idea of who that person was, what was his/her character like, was that person a sadist or an enthusiast, who all did he/she meet in past few days and even other factors like what was his/her lifestyle choices, likes or dislikes, in short the complete behaviour.

The nature of information collected can therefore be classified into three categories:

  1. Biographical information (age, marital status, occupation
  2. Personal information (relationships, lifestyle, alcohol/drug use, sources of stress).
  3. Secondary information (family history, police records, diaries)
This not only gives a clear direction for further investigation but also brings into picture several kinds of truths which could otherwise go unnoticed.

Indian Take on PA

Talking about truths, there is a long list of cases which shook India as a whole e.g. Dixit murder case, Aarushi Murder case, Sunanda Pushkar case, Rohit Vamula case, are some of the cases which disturbed the general public and the truth behind these deaths are still to be discovered.

There isn�t any case in India where Psychological autopsy was especially done or ordered by court to be proceeded with. However it did come in picture for few cases to help the investigators.

For example, In case of Sunanda Pushkar , The Special Investigation Team (SIT) relied greatly on the forensic psychological autopsy of seven people close to the deceased including her husband, personal staff and her son to conclude that she committed suicide.Studying the case for more than four years, the Delhi Police filed a charge sheet in Delhi court blaming Pushkar's husband Tharoor for abetting her suicide.The medico-legal and forensic evidence were analysed during the investigation but after carrying out the psychological autopsy, the investigators concluded that Tharoor mistreated his wife and as a result of that Pushkar committed suicide due to the cruelty suffered by her.

Yet, AIIMS experts stated that the test helps the investigators in their probe but then the report is not admissible in the court. The findings of forensic psychological tests cannot be used as evidence like the lie detection test which is not admissible either. These tests cannot be used as evidence under the Evidence Act.

So let�s look into the Indian evidence act, 1872. Section 45 of the said act states: " Opinions of experts.�When the Court has to form an opinion upon a point of foreign law or of science or art, or as to identity of handwriting [or finger impressions], the opinions upon that point of persons specially skilled in such foreign law, science or art, [or in questions as to identity of handwriting] [or finger impressions] are relevant facts. Such persons are called experts."

As we know In India, the police collects the evidence and transports it to the Forensic Laboratory of the Jurisdiction where experts scientifically examine it. The role of a forensic psychologist would ideally begin when they are called upon by the police, lawyers or judges to interview and assess criminals. The formal interview and assessment are then used as corroborative evidence in the court of law to help execute justice effectively.

A Forensic Psychologist can also continue to work towards rehabilitation of a criminal or a victim under court mandate in a medico-legal ward. As per the above clause, a forensic psychologist assists the judicial system to execute the law in a just manner by presenting facts. These facts are in the form of reports of in-depth interviews and thorough assessments of the suspects in question. It must be taken into account that a forensic psychologist acts as an expert who imparts his knowledge and expertise to the courtroom, which acts as corroborative evidence[1].

So why not include the reports and assessments formulated during the psychological autopsy?

In other countries
To understand scenario in other countries, let us dive into the case of Tina marcini. In this case of Jackson v. state, a 17-year-old girl Tina Mancini died on March 24, 1986 and there was no question about the physical cause of her death as she had shot herself using her mother's Magnum pistol.

But what brought this case to nationwide attention was the much more complicated question of what may have caused Mancini to commit suicide and how, if at all, that question should be raised in court.
The case became particularly controversial because it led to charges of child abuse against Tina Mancini's mother, who had forced her to work as a nude dancer. And also because the trial judge allowed a psychiatrist to testify as an expert witness on why the daughter may have killed herself.

It was the first time that child abuse charges had been brought against a parent after a child's suicide, authorities said, and the first time a "psychological autopsy" was admitted as evidence in a criminal trial.
The prosecution said Theresa Jackson forced her daughter into nude dancing and used a large portion of the girl's earnings from that job to pay her own rent. The defence argued that Jackson was a mentally disturbed woman, herself a victim of child abuse who could not control a headstrong teen-ager dreaming of fame and fortune.

Jackson was found guilty of child abuse, forgery and procuring a sexual performance by a child. She was sentenced to one year in prison, two years of community control and three years� probation, on the condition that she continued to receive therapy at a mental health outpatient clinic.[2]

The trial judge acted in discretion in admitting this evidence and thereby giving a right and just angle to this otherwise difficult case. This case marked itself as a precedent for future cases which used PA to come to a fair conclusions in America.

In western countries now the PA is performed as per the need of the case. The opinions from professional psychologists about the mental condition of the deceased, have been drawn upon in many courts of the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia which has influenced some strong judgements.

In contrast, if we consider the Indian scenario, investigation is typically done by police officer (usually inspector rank) and they don�t have any idea about the PA. So far there aren�t any reported case where a PA was especially done to solve any case.

Psychological autopsy is a very important tool to dissect the inferences about the deceased person�s intentions and emotional state right before his/her death which are extremely significant in making the case and figuring out the reasons for his/her death. Regardless of this, the field of forensic psychology is still in its infancy and just through more work of research, standardization, and documentation, a proper procedure and recognition can be provided.

Conclusive suggestion here would be that Indian courts should too look into this concept and try implementing it to solve mysterious and unexplainable cases along with cases of less serious grievance.

Taking help of psychology in legal issues helps in getting a clearer vision and it helps the judge to execute a verdict, which is fair and in light of the safety of the society and the individual.

To add on, other countries like USA, Australia, etc. too have recognised it�s importance and have accepted PA as an undeniable evidence. Also it is nowhere mentioned in the evidence act of 1872, that a psychological assessment or autopsy cannot be submissive to the court, hence not considering it as an evidence is just questioning the forensic and psychological expertise of these experts.

Few of the reasons which might hinder with implementation of PA can be:
  • The absence of standard assessment to measure a person�s reactions to the interviews that might surge the odds of reliable assessments and valid opinions.
  • The recalls of third parties who may be interviewed by the interviewer may make an opinion about victim and his mental status less reliable. This can also be done intentionally.
  • Sometimes only the positive (or negative) facts about a person is recallable due to personal bias which makes it unreliable as the informant may be unaware of specific factors or may purposely withhold information.
To counter these limitations the investigating officers should go for a qualitative in-depth analysis of the deaths with the help of autopsy surgeon and a trained psychologist. In addition to this, training and orientation programmes related to psychology/criminal psychology should be conducted for the police officers and other investigating officers[3], to help them in carefully interpreting all the circumstantial evidences and autopsy findings, which in the end helps in solving the conundrum of uncharacteristic suicides and unexplainable deaths.

  1. Havovi Hyderabadwalla, Forensic Psychology in India � where are we and where are we going,
  2. Don Colburn, 'Psychological Autopsy' In The Courtroom,
  3. Geetika Saxena and Vineeta Saini, Psychological Autopsy � A Way to Revealing the Enigma of Equivocal Death, International Journal of Forensic Sciences,
Written By: Khushi Upadhyay

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