Bills allow autopsies by cops, kin OK or no

Goal to increase postmortems in deaths deemed as suspicious

Kyodo

The ruling and opposition parties plan to submit two bills to the Diet that will enable police to conduct autopsies without having to obtain the consent of relatives when it is uncertain whether a person died naturally or was the victim of foul play, according to lawmakers.

If enacted, they will be the first laws to articulate the system of identifying the cause of death. Concern about the nation’s low autopsy rate has been growing over the years as police-conducted postmortems are few and thus crimes are not investigated or prosecuted. In 2011, autopsies were performed on only 11 percent of bodies handled by police.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito plan to submit to the current Diet session the bills sponsored by member lawmakers that will oblige police to probe causes of death to ensure criminal acts do not go undetected, lawmakers said Thursday.

Under the new system, police will have the authority to conduct autopsies without getting the approval of the deceased’s family if they find such an examination is necessary to clarify the cause of death after hearing the opinions of forensic doctors and other experts.

Police will also be required to explain to relatives, unless their whereabouts is unknown, why an autopsy is needed.

When police make a decision not to perform autopsies, they can still request that doctors conduct tests on urine and blood samples and examine bodies by computer tomography.

The bills stipulate that a new certification system will be introduced for forensic scientists at universities who are commissioned by police to perform autopsies. Eventually, the legislation proposes the central government set up special institutions across the country to perform official autopsies.

When the cause of death is found to be an infectious disease, police will alert local public health authorities. The envisioned new system will not cover deaths resulting from possible medical malpractice. That is expected to be covered by separate legislation.

The government aims to raise the ratio of corpses handled by police on which autopsies are performed to 20 percent over the next five years.

In 2007, police did not conduct an autopsy on a sumo wrestler who died from a severe beating, reportedly because they did not suspect foul play, despite the victims blunt-force external wounds. The victim’s family then asked a university to examine the body, which led to the conviction of his stablemaster and fellow grapplers.