Since the nineteenth century society sought evidence to make justice, the story of the “epileptic felon”; the Zawadzky case, defended by the young criminal lawyer Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1935; or the so-called cruentation, are precedents of the development of society to come to what today is known as “forensic sciences”.
One of the most recent developments in this field is that of Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) in Bogotá researcher and History Ph.D. candidate Nelson Alberto Rojas Niño, who determined that in the process, the experts were part of the “Spanish colonial legacy.”
This was one of the conclusions of the thesis work for his Ph.D. in History, entitled: “Forensic medicine and social order. Knowledge and legal medical practices in Colombia between 1850 and 1936,” directed by UNal History Associate Professor Dr. Max Hering Torres.
“In 1908, the expertise of Dr. Carlos Putnam in the case against Braulio Ramos, also known as ‘Tiger man’, led the proceedings to recognize an assassin as suffering from epilepsy. Ramos killed his brother-in-law Pedro Avendaño in the municipality of Pacho (Province of Cundinamarca) by 280 machete blows. The controversy emerged when Putnam in clear opposition of the first medical examination declared Ramos as suffering from epilepsy while official physicians could not find any evidence of this disease,” explains Rojas in his research.
Another of the more than 20 cases studied was what was deemed the “Case of the Century”. Jorge Zawadzky was a politician and merchant from the city of Cali accused of killing physician Arturo Mejía in a crime of passion. When interrogated, he stated. “Yes, it was I, in defense of my insulted honor”. The case was tried in Bogotá, where it was demonstrated that he suffered from an “emotional constitution” and that the problem of the indicted was in his nervous system which on occasions made him react in an exaggerated manner.
In another case, what was known as the cruentation, was a medieval practice which consisted of a public exposure of the cadaver, backed by the authorities. However, in medieval times, they thought that a cadaver would begin to bleed in presence of his/her assassin. The explanations included from divine justice to indignation of the body when the assassin was near.
This forensic practice occurred in Bogotá in 1851, when the Police publicly exhibited the corpse of Manuel Ferro, “with the purpose of good citizens to provide data on the dead person and the motives that led to his violent death.”
At that moment in time, there was an on-going investigation on robberies of important people in Bogotá carried out by a “band of robbers”. On a night of April 1851, Manuel Ferro, a blacksmith, was attacked by four men who stabbed him five times in front of the house of José Raimundo Russi.” In his deathbed, he confessed he was part of a band and said that Russi was the leader. This confession was carried out under oath with the supervision of three physicians, who testified that the psychological status was Ferro was in complete lucidity.
These declarations led the authorities to capture most of the robbers and clarify many of the robberies. Despite an eloquent defense, Russi was convicted of robbery and murder and sentenced to death. The remaining members of the band were sent to prison and forced labor in Panama, where they never returned.
Rojas noticed that back then the legal system had medical practitioners who appeared in different legal procedures as actors and in other cases as protagonists.
In his research, he used the archeological proposal of Michel Foucault, which seeks to determine the thinking, representations, images, topics, and obsessions hidden or manifested in speeches. Furthermore, he also took into account the criminological speeches of the end of the nineteenth century were disperse as stated by University of Colorado Professor Robert Buffington.
“We use the penal code as primary sources of the middle of the twentieth-century, the first pieces of evidences of the courses provided in universities, the undergraduate thesis of physicians with topics related to forensic sciences and documents related to known causes for which the intervention of experts was necessary,” said Rojas. Once the information was gathered it was sorted, compared and analyzed as part of the archeological process.
Finally, with an analysis of the facts, Rojas shows how forensic medicine was the product of a negotiation between lawyers and physicians, and the scientific practice has been essential to explain the criminal issues.
According to Torres, “The greatest thing about the thesis is that it demonstrated how historically spaces which suppose are objectives –law and medicine– in the past have also served to reproduce political values not exempt from stigmas and prejudice. This makes us ponder on justice management, truth and order as proper platforms to establish power relationships which not only benefit but help construct a specific model of a politized objective filtered status quo.”
As a result of this process, forensic medicine, i.e. the application of medicine for expert consultancy for legal procedures, became an institution in Colombia and was consolidated as a scientific field for justice management.
In face of criminality, perceived as a social issue difficult to solve, forensic medicine is now endowed with new responsibilities: be a guarantor of social order by supporting justice administration with the truth of science, without prejudice and leading society to deeply reassess itself.
Another discovery of the research project is that physicians are not overtaking the justice system justice; physicians and lawyers need to be a complement to justice. Medical doctors and lawyers end up in a strategic alliance to maintain social order, each one playing an important role in the process.
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