Death on her hands

 

Ireland has changed profoundly in the eight years since the State Pathologist, Prof Marie Cassidy, moved here to take up a job she loves, she tells Ruadhán MacCormaic

Tucked into a corner of the windswept yard, the grey structure could almost be taken for a storage cabin were it not for the small windows and the single laminated sheet of paper blu-tacked to a door so thin you fear a firm knock might leave a dent. "Office of State Pathologist" the sign reads.

Still, in its incongruity the prefab fits in. The quiet grounds, set back from Dublin's busy Malahide Road, are shared with the Fire Brigade Training Centre and dominated by a well-kept GAA pitch, the space behind each goalpost full of firefighters' equipment: there are drill yards, burnt-out sheds of corrugated iron, some tall white training towers and a fake black house-cum-hotel complete with chimney and a pair of cartoon ghosts and white skull painted on in white.

The afternoon is turning in, and Prof Marie Cassidy - just back from a post-mortem in the mortuary building nearby - smiles broadly and sits back in her chair with a mug of coffee, her small frame set against a wall thick with textbooks, journals and elaborately labelled box-files.

The State Pathologist is familiar and yet largely unknown. Since she came to Ireland to take up the position of deputy to Prof John Harbison, in 1998, her regular walk-on parts on the nine o'clock news have made hers an instantly recognisable face, her striking blond hair and white overalls as commonplace now as the slightly old-world charms of her predecessor. She laughs at the idea.

"I find that bizarre. I find that very, very strange, that it has become such a high-profile post. Because it's not that we deserve it at all. A lot of the time it's the same gardaí, the same people from the technical bureau, but because they come in a group, they're not quite so identifiable. Whereas because we travel alone, then it becomes: 'The State Pathologist is going to the scene', or 'The Deputy State Pathologist is going to the scene'. You become a recognisable figure."

The first inkling she had of the vague theatrics of the Irish job came when she was working in Scotland and Prof Harbison paid a visit. When he got to the airport in Glasgow, he approached a pair of local policemen. "How do I find the department of forensic medicine?" he asked. The men stared at him blankly. He dropped the names of a few leading lights. And still nothing. "Jack thought this was hysterical," says Prof Cassidy. "We thought he was pulling our leg, [ saying] that everybody knew him."

She may agree to meet a journalist only rarely, but Prof Cassidy, it turns out, is an interviewer's interviewee: talkative, personable, self-effacing. She has an easy presence, swapping gossip and banter with the small team in the office but exudes that quiet, effortless authority of the manifestly capable. She is alert and sharp, aware of every word, but at the same time demonstrative, warm and, best of all, possessed of a quirky sense of humour as black as her line of work.

She tells of being recognised the other week in the changing room of a clothes shop in town.

"'Are you on the television?' the woman asked. And I went, 'Not really'. 'I do know you, though. I've seen you before'. 'You might have,' I said, 'but you'll know a lot more of me now.' 'I know who you are. You're that woman, that pathologist.' 'And I said, 'Yes, I am, thank you very much. Now can I go back and put my clothes on, please?'"

Later this evening, she has a Spanish class to go to. When she showed up for the first one a few weeks ago, her teacher - a Spaniard - was sure they had met but couldn't quite place her. Prof Cassidy said nothing. "But she can't understand why I miss half the classes. And why I'm the worst in the class," she says, laughing again.

Last year the State Pathologist's office investigated 255 deaths, a workload Dr Cassidy shared with her deputy Dr Michael Curtis, a colleague from her Glasgow days. Many of the cases in Cos Cork and Kerry are now dealt with by Dr Margaret Bolster, while a fourth pathologist - Dr Declan Gilsenan - provides locum assistance.

Generally, the office is called in for any death that the Garda deems suspicious, though the term itself has never been defined: it includes all suspected homicides, hit-and-run road deaths or any death involving a Garda car. Sometimes an apparent suicide with a peculiar mark on the body or a body found in a strange position will be enough to merit the call.

The job makes notorious demands of the holder: Dr Cassidy and her deputy each work 12 days on, two days off, and are "on call" 24 hours a day, ready to travel to Co Donegal or Co Galway at a moment's notice. (Last year Dr Cassidy's State driver was withdrawn due to cutbacks, bringing her to say publicly that she worried about being too tired when arriving at the scene of a crime in the middle of the night, often after driving herself from Dublin. The driver was reinstated.) It's surely not the easiest of jobs to switch off from.

"At the end of the day, it's a job," she replies. "Okay, it's a rather unusual job, but it's not something that troubles me. I don't have sleepless nights, seeing all these horrible, ghastly images, because that doesn't affect me at all, one iota. I mean, I doubt very much that there's anything I haven't seen at this stage - I'm 20 years in, I think I've seen most things - so that kind of thing doesn't prey on my mind." But, naturally, there are cases she finds more difficult, more draining than others: usually, they involve the death of a young person.

'IT'S ALWAYS DIFFICULT dealing with child deaths, because we accept that as adults, something can happen to us, and we can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, we can be the person who took the lift from the guy who had too much to drink. When things happen, they're terrible and they're tragic for the family, but we accept that, as adults, bad things can happen and people can die.

"When it comes to dealing with children, there is nothing in this world that makes that right. There's no point in saying, well, it's just one of those things. To the family, this is the worst thing that can ever happen, and you can understand that because we've all got children and you do think, if something happened to my child, how would I ever cope? With children, you just look at them, you think [ breathes in]: that could happen to my family, that could."

She and her husband Phil have two children, aged 17 and 18. And she worries for them.

As a rule, the atmosphere in the mortuary when a young person's body is laid out is always strained, but it is for the others in the room that Prof Cassidy feels concern.

"I came into this with my eyes open. I knew that I was going to be dealing with dead people all the time. I would never be dealing with live patients. I would never have happy, smiley people coming into my surgery and saying, 'Oh doctor, that was great, that made me feel a thousand times better.' It was never going to happen. Mine are just dead, very dead and even deader. And moulding. But there are people who will be in there who didn't sign up for that.

"So your gardaí thought that what they'd be doing would be catching criminals and directing traffic or doing all sorts of things. They did not think that they would spend a night in a mortuary looking at some dead child." She finds herself watching out for people at times like these, and usually senses when someone is finding it difficult to cope: he'll go quiet or step away from the group and, seeing this, she'll quietly bring him back in, involve him in the conversation, lead him back from the thoughts she imagines fill his mind.

Prof Cassidy did choose this way of life. Born in Rutherglen, an old coal mining town that's now a south-eastern suburb of Glasgow, Cassidy began her medical career at the Falkirk Royal Infirmary in 1978. She tried A&E work ("It was kind of a toss-up: is it dead people or people with lumps missing?") but because there wasn't an obvious career structure in it at the time, she moved into pathology when the opportunity arose. And then she discovered forensics. "It changed my life completely. I thought, I'm going to do this."

For 12 years she worked in Glasgow University's department of forensic medicine, which provided around-the-clock post-mortem services to Strathclyde police. In the city she had a high profile: Scottish newspapers speculated that she was the role model for the BBC TV series Silent Witness, in which actor Amanda Burton played pathologist Prof Sam Ryan. (The evidence was circumstantial, but conclusive enough for any jury of newspapermen - she was the only woman in that job at the time.) By the time she left she had risen to the position of senior consultant in forensic pathology.

She loved the job, but "the problem with forensic pathologists is, they're very opinionated" - the job requires it - and by the time the Glasgow department had six full-time staff, the squabbles started to overshadow the work. If something comes up, she thought, I'll consider it. And before long the vacancy arose in Dublin.

Thinking of what Prof Harbison told her back then about Irish crime reminds her of how Ireland has changed in her short time here. She doesn't think it's any more violent than any other society, but it's changing, certainly.

"I mean, when I came over here, I had come from the midst of the drug wars in Glasgow, and I thought, if I've to go out to another shooting, I'll scream. How many of these do I have to see in my life? It's time I had a change. I'll retire to Ireland and I'll not do anything, because Jack Harbison tells me that there's very little crime over there." She laughs, her big green eyes turning to the window. "And I thought, easy peasy."

What she notices is that the culture of crime has changed, and puts it down mainly to the influx of drugs in the past decade. Research they had carried out in Glasgow over many years showed that as the number of heroin or ecstasy deaths rose, so too did the homicide rate.

"I don't think there's anything you can do about it. Ireland is just where the UK was before I left it. I'm going to have to find somewhere else to go now," she jokes. "Where will I go next?"

One side of Irish life that hasn't changed, and the reason she reckons she is so widely known, is the social fixation with death. It brings forth the broad smile again, and suddenly her Glaswegian accent sounds even more pronounced.

'HOW MANY FUNERALS have I been to in my life? You go to people that you know really well. Member of the family, yes, you'll go to that one. Maybe a colleague, out of respect. But you don't go to every dog in the street," she say, incredulous now. "What's this fascination? It's true, if they haven't been to a removal in a week, it's a bad week. Obituaries! The fact that even the radio programmes list the dead! What is wrong with them?"

"You don't have to know them, you just have to know it's a funeral. It's amazing in this country, the fascination with death. Add any excitement to that, any bit of mystery, anything a bit out of the ordinary, and they'll be there in their droves. It's phenomenal. Incredible."

She refers to "real-life drama", too, and perhaps hits on another reason for the interest in Prof Cassidy and her work. In the past decade, fed by popular culture on TV, in books and on film, there has been a surge in interest in forensic pathology, with the fictionalised scrub-clad appropriating the sort of glamour and cachet previously monopolised by the fake detective. Such is the scale of the phenomenon that people in the profession have given it its own epithet: the "CSI effect".

It's a double-edged sword, says Cassidy, who worked as a consultant on the TV series Taggart and still enjoys watching the rest of them. The obvious benefit is the way in which it stimulates interest in science (one of her hobby horses is that science is not compulsory in secondary schools here), but she fears too many people are taking on a career where the jobs are few.

Does it not also create unrealistic expectations? What about jurors? You can't possibly live up to the fictional exactness of the TV heroes who can fix the time of death to the nearest second and tell you the address of the shop where the (undiscovered) murder weapon was bought.

"Course I caaan!" she jokes. "I think our juries can now take on board what you're saying and they can understand the science that we're using and assimilate that when they're thinking about the overall trial. I mean, juries are not daft."

The democratisation of knowledge also means that criminals may be more alive to the possibilities of the profession, but then the number of homicides that are researched and premeditated is very small, she points out. And in any case, reading information found through Google is one thing; applying it is quite another.

"What we are trained to do is to look at that and say, oh yeah, they've managed to do that but there's something lacking there or that's not quite right. It keeps us on our toes - I don't have a problem with it."

In fiction, many of the best-known pathologists are women, and in real life too the field has redressed its gender imbalance more quickly than others. This cannot be accidental, can it? Prof Cassidy posits two explanations, the first a keen eye for detail shared by her female colleagues: "That's not to say that our male counterparts aren't every bit as good. But we also don't have a problem with including other people. I always say, get as many experts as you possibly can, because it bolsters your case. So we bring in the anthropologist, we bring in the dentist, we bring in the entomologist."

Prof Harbison noted that he once examined nine bodies over five days when he was the one-man State Pathology Office. Despite some extra manpower, the workload for Prof Cassidy and her deputy, Dr Curtis, is rising constantly. The question of resources, indeed, is one of the first she raises when talking about the recent discussion over whether it was enough for the State to rely on one pathologist's opinion.

The question arose in difficult circumstances earlier this year. For the retrial of Dermot Laide for the manslaughter of Brian Murphy outside the Burlington Hotel in Dublin in 2000, Prof Cassidy wrote a report based on her conclusions, having examined various case sources and medical evidence. Her conclusions on the cause of death were dramatically different from those of Prof Harbison.

In the debate that followed, it was suggested that Ireland should adopt the same practice as in Scotland, where two pathologists are required to view a death and then present a joint report.

"I'd never say no to it, and I've worked with it [ in Scotland] for a long, long time. But it's not the answer to everybody's problems. It's not foolproof, and it has its drawbacks, and even to go down that line, you would have to think very, very carefully," she says.

Apart from the logistical difficulties - the department already needs at least one more pathologist, but would need a doubling in numbers under a double-doctor system - the practice depends on having pathologists of precisely equivalent training, which rarely occurs.

"The only person I've ever worked with who was ever at the same stage as myself is the one I'm now working with again, Mike Curtis. We both ended up in Glasgow at the same time, both with the same kind of background, number of years' training, and it worked exceptionally well."

SOME OF THE criticism she hears in court from defence lawyers is redundant, she adds: the opinion expressed by any pathologist from her office is never only their own, but has been agreed by four people at their monthly case conferences.

By now it's pitch-black outside and the day is done. The staff have all left, and we can hear the evening wind sweep against the office walls. She enjoys the work, she reminds you, as if it didn't already show.

"If something else happens here, I might go off, but no, up to now, it's been good. It's changed a lot since I got here. People's attitudes have changed and everything is much more professional. It's changed so much for the better, and it's nice to think you were here while it was changing. The people I work with are fabulous - all the way through from the Garda to the mortuary staff. Fabulous people. The State's in good hands."

As we walk along the corridor, her mobile phone rings and she returns to the office to take the call. She listens, asks questions, then hangs up and pauses for a few seconds.

"Another shooting in Dublin," she says. "There goes my Spanish class."