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‘I studied knife wounds by bringing meat home for dinner and stabbing it’ – forensic pathologist

Death is never pretty and in many cases leaves lots of questions behind. And this man’s job is getting answers. I talk to forensic pathologist Dr. Richard Shepherd who was engaged in the most high-profile investigations in recent decades, and author of the book ‘Unnatural Causes’.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Richard Shepherd it's really great to have you with us. Welcome to Moscow. You're Britain's top forensic pathologist. It's not a profession that I get very often as my interviewee. There’s lots of questions to ask. Such a fascinating very spectrum, like a different world to me. So you have performed more than 20 000 autopsies and worked for decades in so many cases. When you see a dead body for you what is it right away - a crime scene or a medical case? 

Richard Shepherd: It's both. Every dead body is a puzzle. It's something that needs solving. Whether it needs solving for medicine, for the family or whether it needs solving for a crime depends on what I find. So the first time I see a dead body, I'm thinking about what are the options, what are the possibilities. One of them is always crime, and one of them is always a medical issue.  

SS: Do you feel like based on your experience, you can solve a crime based on an autopsy or an examination alone? 

RS: Some crimes. Generally speaking the pathologist is going to be a very important part in understanding what is going on. He’s giving the police and the prosecutors the evidence that they need to charge someone with a murder or a manslaughter. I don't always solve completely but I have a very big input. 

SS: You do. Has your work ever led to an innocent person being released from prison, for instance?  

RS: Oh yeah. Earlier in January. 

SS: Give me an example, it's always fascinating to hear examples.  

RS: In January I was giving evidence in a trial. I won't tell you where because it's potentially identifiable when I tell you the rest. A woman had been found dead in a sleep in the lounge of her house. And her husband was prosecuted for her murder. She had been strangled. And the crime scene was wrong for a murder. So saying, I'm not just looking at the body. I'm looking all around, and there were all sorts of little trinkets, tiny little objects, photographs on a table near her. And they hadn't been knocked over. They were still standing neat and tidy. And I knew that couldn't have been a fight in that place. But around her neck was a lyncher made of leggings, and I said “She strangled herself. This is a suicide”. And further investigation: she was very depressed, she was having an affair, her lover had had an argument with her and all of the story became clearer and clearer that this woman had actually committed suicide. But her husband was charged with murder and we got him off. 

SS: Amazing.  

RS: Well I hope I'm right. I'm sure I'm right. I'm sure I'm right. Actually it is such a classic case. 

SS: So there are TV shows like “Bones” that are super popular, they make us believe the forensic pathology is a very precise science, is that so?  

RS: A lot of it can be precise. Is there a bullet hole? Yes or no. Is there a stab wound? Yes or no. How far did the stab wound go? A lot of it is precise but it's the interpretation. At the end it's the pulling all of the facts together that allow for some variations. Sometimes you can be really precise, really accurate in exactly what was going on by looking at the crime scene, by looking at the injuries, by looking at the weapons. Sometimes you are less certain. So shows like CSI, Bones are fantastic. They tell a great story but they don’t show reality. We have to deal with reality and sometimes in reality the bullet isn't there. The CCTV doesn't show just that piece of the information that we need. So we have to deal with those problems and still try and put a jigsaw together to catch a murderer or to prove someone's incident. 

SS: So you specialise on knife wounds. Can you tell by wound that a staber was a lefty, or a woman, or a pro, or an amateur, or like a super experienced criminal? 

RS:  There are features that might give me bits of information on all of those things. The key factors there are examining, as I keep saying, the whole crime scene. We need to see more than just the body. Although I've done 23000 postmortems, I look at more than just the body and the wounds. There are features that show that this individual was probably left... the assailant was probably left-handed. Marks on the body two people face to face. If you're right-handed, I'm going to stop the left side of your body. I'm left-handed -  I'm going to stab the right side of your body. It's very simple. But it can give us a clue. And that's what I'm trying to then pass on to the police. Is there movement? Is there multiple stab wounds? Are there more than one weapon used? Have they been cutting? Has there been torturing? All of these factors are built to telling that story of that death, and that's what I'm trying to understand what has gone on and why that person has died. 

SS:So what are the most common mistakes that a criminal makes - that makes it easier for you to catch them as part of an investigative team? 

RS: Well, I would have to say that if I ever decided that I wanted to dispose of an individual I don't think I could do it and not make a mistake. So, this is no criticism of any criminal and I'm very grateful for all the mistakes they made because that makes our job a lot easier. But often there will be attempts to stage a crime to put the body in the position that they think it would have fallen in naturally. Most people have not seen a body at a crime scene. I don't expect you've seen the body on the crime scene.  

SS: No, not my hobby.  

RS: But on the other hand I've seen thousands. And when someone isn't doing it right, you can tell. If you watch cooking programs on television and you're watching the professional chefs cooking something and then you see the amateur next to them may be trying to do the same thing, you can tell that the amateur is not doing it right, even though you're not a professional chef yourself. So when I see a crime scene with the eyes of a professional, I will see gaps, I’ll see mistakes, I’ll see errors immediately within it. But I'm not going to tell you how to make the perfect murder, I'm afraid.  

SS: There's always the other side of the story. Have you ever made wrongful conclusions that has actually convicted a person? 

RS: Well I hope not. I think it’s the answer to that. We have a system in the United Kingdom where there's the right for appeal and after the appeal you can go to another court and then people can see other people getting it investigated. I mean, in my career people have complained but people often complain when they're convicted of murder. I've never been sanctioned, or told off, or had a court case reversed on any of the case that I've done, so it is a huge worry that, you know, I can set myself up as being perfect and I'm not perfect. I have a lot of doubt all of the time, and I work very hard. But I've never been sanctioned. 

SS:Is there a such thing as an objective truth in your line of work? I mean, can, for instance, a courtroom completely rely on your findings because you're not doing the psychology of the case,  right? You're not really doing the investigation part. Can they rely on your work only for this? 

RS: It's very important to draw the line between what is a certain fact to say. Is there a bullet hole? Yes, there is a bullet hole. Where is the bullet hole? It goes through the chest. Does the bullet hole kill him? Yes. There are three clear facts that I can give to the court. Then we move into the areas of opinion. So, how far was the gun from the body when it was discharged? That's more a matter of science and opinion. What was going on? Now, I can think of another case I see where someone had a bullethole in their hand here and out of the back, and then it's gone into their chest. Now it seems reasonable that they put their hand up, saying: “Stop!”, or “Don't do that!” That's conjecture, that's guessing. But it's guessing based on 30 years experience. And you can say: “I think this is what was going on at that time. I know. I have to make sure that the jury of 12 people in England understand what I'm saying. I don't make the decision”. They go away and they decide for me. 

SS:So, you've also helped a lot identify serial killers. There’s this doctor, the famous Dr. Harold Shipman, who had killed more than 200 of his patients. How do you help do that? What are they like? How do you pinpoint the guilt? 

RS: Well, in Shipman’s case, in fact, I was acting for his defense. 

SS:I couldn't believe!..  

RS: I was  defending him... 

SS: How was this possible?  

RS: That was a part of my job. I worked for the prosecution, I work for the defense. We don't know at the start whether he is guilty or not.  

SS: So, he hired you? 

RS: His lawyers hired me to give an opinion on what was appearing. Now we were very early on in this process. So very early on I was looking at what the post-mortem had, looking at how these people had died. And there's very close personal links actually. The last person to die lived in the house opposite to the one that my mother grew up in.  

SS: Did you know that that person? 

RS:  My aunty did.  

SS: Oh, wow! 

RS: So, that was very-very strange. The first time in my life there’s ever been this sort of closeness. But anyway, I was defending Harold Shipman in that case. And you have to just take all of the information, process it, and my advice to the lawyers was: “I think he's guilty”. I think there is no reason why these people would die other than he gave them heroin and killed. So that was my advice and I didn't give evidence in court because  

SS: Do you retire yourself from cases like that when you understand that the person whose side you're working on is guilty, or are you like a lawyer who actually takes it till the end no matter what? 

RS: I'm like a lawyer. I mean, I express an opinion whether I think they're guilty or not guilty. Doesn't matter. I would express an opinion. It’s then for the lawyers to decide whether they want me to just go away quietly, as quite often happens, it must be said, or whether I'm called to give evidence at the trial because there is some mitigation, there something that might just make the sentence lighter or might just convince the jury, or like the case I told you about with the strangled woman, or I go in and I give evidence full bore in a court of law, and we hope that we get the person found not guilty. So all of these are possibilities. 

SS:So, lots of interesting things you read in this book, one of which that you used to take work at home.  

RS: Yeah.  

SS: So, you used to stab meat to figure out what kind of wounds a certain knife would leave. Is that right? 

RS: Yes, embarrassingly so.  

SS: It's not embarrassing. This is the kind of job you did for 40 years.  

RS: The kids were impressed.  

SS: They were watching you do that?  

RS: No they weren't watching but they found the holes in the meat that we ate for dinner. 

SS: Oh, then you aided. 

RS: Of course, there was recycling. 

SS: OK, do you still do that? 

RS: Not anymore. Kids are grown up. It was important because we often have a stab wound in the body, but no knife. So it was understanding how different knives could cause different wounds. It was researched so that when I had a real stabbing case I could apply that. Now I'm not allowed to stab living people. It's not considered good medical practice. So I had to use something else. And the family joint at the weekend seemed perfectly adequate. 

SS: I love your family. I think there should be a TV show about you and your family. But that's a really good tip for the TV directors to have in like Bones or like, you know, their own forensic serious to actually take meat home and stab it and then eat it for dinner. I think it's wonderful. Tell me about this. Has the evidence that you unearth ever come in conflict with what the investigators are pursuing?  

RS: Yeah. 

SS: So, what happens then? How hard is it to fight for your version of the truth and convince the police that they are wrong?  

RS: In a sense, it's not my problem. I will fight my corner and I will explain to them logically, I hope, scientifically, medically why I have reached the conclusion that I've reached. And in the end if the police choose not to accept it, that's their problem.  

SS: You wouldn't contest either? 

RS: There is no mechanism in the system that I work in for me to contest it. Sometimes, I say I think that person's guilty murder and they go: “We're not sure, we can't prove it”. I certainly had occasions when they want me to have a cause of death that is murder. And I say: “Sorry, I can't quite get there. And there are good reasons I have to step across stepping stones, across the river, I've got to go across these stepping stones. I can't go across the stepping stones, I can't say that if I go to court. The court will throw out my evidence then, so you have to now understand what I will say and it's their decision. 

SS:So, if you put on scale what has been harder in your line of work finding the truth in a mortuary or defending your case in a courtroom? 

RS: They're both hard in different ways and a lot of cases... I don't like using the word “simple”, but a lot of cases are straightforward. A lot of cases are domestic shootings, domestic stabbings, there are one obvious victim and one obvious criminal. It's not difficult. It is the difficult ones when it becomes harder finding the truth. The scientific medical truth can be difficult, but then when we go to court in the English system where it's adversarial, so there will always be the defendant's expert, the defendant's barrister attacking you. That can be very hard then, you have to defend it.  

SS: How often were your findings rejected in a courtroom? 

RS: In a sense almost every time. Because the barrister has to work for his client. He has to. He can't make assumptions. So they always challenged a little bit, but be in a big way - maybe once a year sometimes. 

SS:But do barristers and law enforcement agents or judges treat you with respect due to being a scientist? 

RS: It is a very professional scientific argument. They have a job to do. I respect that their job is to challenge me, to find out if there are weak points. As if I say: “He must have stabbed them with his left hand”, that's for their job to challenge me and say: “Well, how do you know?” And I say: “Well, I've stabbed more meat in my kitchen at home than you've had hot dinners, and that's how I know what I'm saying is the case”. So they have to challenge, I have to argue. Sometimes they make a good point. But in English law courts it is for the jury to decide and they are the people I have to convince, not anyone else in the courtroom. 

SS: You ended up working on high profile cases like Princess Diana's death. How did that happen? I mean, why you? 

RS:The answer to that is I don't know. I may have just been the right person at the right time. It may be that the people chose me, thought that I was the best person to do it. 

SS: So, in your book you write about being involved in Princess Diana's autopsy and you're saying that this could have been avoided, right? 

RS: Yeah. 

SS: What should have been done differently? What were your findings? 

RS: I didn't actually do the autopsy.  

SS: But you were involved.  

RS: I was involved. There was a review, a special review later on and that's where I became the expert to look at all of the facts surrounding her death. Very simply, if Princess Diana wore her seatbelt in her car, she would have lived. The injuries she had was such that it wouldn’t be the cause, except to someone in a car. Mercedes is a very safe car. Wearing a seatbelt in a Mercedes, you're going to climb out of most accidents, and her fault, I'm afraid, and that of her boyfriend and the driver Henri Paul - they didn't put their seatbelts on them. 

SS:And you also saying in the book that it's hard when you get involved in high profile cases because there's pressure on you. What kind of pressure are you talking about? 

RS: The pressure is always the time. The pressure is always we want it done, I mean, you need to look at all this documentation, you need to do all this very quickly. The balance that is in something of that size there is a lot of support as well, so that I can actually call on help. And then there is the conclusions. The conclusion that Princess Diana should have worn her seatbelt is in the sense for me is not an easy one, because it means the mistake was hers, not anyone else's. So you know there's going to be some public pushback against that sort of conclusion. 

SS: Do you feel it on your side? 

RS: There was quite a lot of push by it. 

SS: “How could he have said that”? 

RS: “How can it be her fault? She was in the car. She should have been protected. It wasn't her fault”. OK. Henri Paul shouldn't have driven so fast. They shouldn't have left the hotel the way they did. But the bottom line is the thing that killed her was that she wasn't restrained in the car travelling at a very significant speed. And that's, I'm afraid, not just killed Diana, but killed thousands, and thousands, and thousands of people over the world. So, Diana was a unique person. But her death wasn't unique. 

SS: You also perform analysis on size of mass deaths like terrorist attacks. Now that must be something, because for me, for someone who doesn't do autopsies it has to be, at a sight like that, is overwhelming. Does it really matter what caused the death when you see thousands of bodies being blown up like in incident on Bali? 

RS: You would think so. You would think: “Oh! It's obvious! Now we know exactly what’s happened here. A bomb has gone off. If we look at two cases in London: the big London bombings of 7/7 and something that had happened previously, in the previous incident - the Marchioness, when the pleasure boat sank, - there were other problems with that. But the question here is why did you need to do a full autopsy? Why did you need to look at all the organs? Why did you have to disfigure them? And the answer was: “We needed to be sure because we didn't know. That there wasn't someone with a gun as well. Unlikely, but we didn't know and we had to prove it”. So when it came to the bombings in London and 7/7, the decision was made. We didn’t do full autopsies. And then the relatives of the people 7/7 said: “Well, they would have survived if the ambulances had done in quicker. And we couldn't answer that question. Because we haven't done the full autopsies to understand all of their internal injuries. So, we have to know everything. We have to have a plan and the system. And if you make one mistake in a mass disaster, get one identification wrong, make one error in a diagnosis, make one mistake in the forensic science, the whole system begins to shake and become unstable and so we have to be very careful. 

SS:So, you told me you were 14 when you first read a book about forensic pathology and that marked you so much that you wanted to do for the rest of your life. I mean, this is not like a very obvious profession, not many people choose it. So I always try to figure out the reasons behind that, what does it do to a person when you work in this line of work. I've interviewed a lot of war photographers who are also faced with death all the time and they tell me that even though the psychological impact is very grave, it is like a drug and they keep going back and back and unless they do that, even though they're risking their own lives, let alone psychological, they can't live without that adrenaline. Is it somewhat similar in your profession? 

RS: Yeah. I mean, I didn't run a risk actually doing my job like the war photographers, but yeah, I mean, you're seeing and experiencing, and being deeply involved in things that other people don't normally see, wouldn't want to see. And you try to be professional, you try to leave it outside the door, you try to compartmentalise it in your brain and so you can forget about it. But little by little these little whispers come. And for me, it was actually putting some ice into my wife's glass of gin & tonic,the sight and the sound of that ice going to the glass reminded me of how we kept the bodies cool in Bali which was with bags of supermarket ice, and that was a real that opened a door into a very unpleasant part of my life for about a year and a half. 

SS: So you also encountered the psychological impact?  

RS: Yes, but I don't think you can do this work without having something. I'm not the only one. After publishing the book more colleagues from around the world have contacted me and said: “Yeah, you know, I've experienced similar things, it’s not the same but similar things after particular deaths, sometimes mass disasters, sometimes a baby death, sometimes road traffic - whatever it is, it links into them, and we really do need, for the pathologists in this world, to take care of their mental health more. I didn't when I was young and I'm pushing now to try and make it important that my colleagues who are still working at this get that done. 

SS:But do you miss it? Because you're not so actively involved anymore. Is it something that really keeps coming back to you as something that you can't live without? 

RS: A little bit. I do fewer cases now, but they're more complex, and I enjoy having the time to spend a month working on one case, understanding exactly what is going on and working on something that's critically complex. That gives me the pleasure now. I used to drive all over the English countryside doing postmortems. Now I'm getting a bit old to do that much driving.So. I'm quite happy to sit by… 

SS: Book tour is better, right?  

RS: Book tour is better. I’m quite happy to sit in my office with my dogs at my feet and spend the days just looking at photographs and reading reports and thinking and that's great. 

SS: Dr. Richard Shepherd, thank you very much for this wonderful interview and good luck. Good luck with everything.  

RS: Thank you very much indeed.

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