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Public policy

At the service of justice

Progress in forensic research is being hampered by structural problems in Brazil’s criminal investigation system

Léo Ramos Chaves

Increased cooperation between academia and law enforcement over the last 15 years has led to significant advancements in forensics, in areas ranging from toxicology to forensic dentistry. The criminal investigation system, however, has continued to be plagued by structural deficiencies that have constrained development. A lack of independence between forensic investigation authorities and overburdened forensic investigators are some of the issues preventing more effective collaboration.

Around 41,600 people were murdered in Brazil in 2018, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum, making homicide investigation a daunting challenge for the country. Although the murder clearance rate at a national level is currently unknown, the Atlas of Violence 2019 report from the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA) found that in those states where the clearance rate is known, it is consistently lower than 20%. Alice Aparecida da Matta Chasin, a professor of toxicology and coordinator of graduate life-science studies at Faculdades Oswaldo Cruz, in São Paulo, says the solution to improving these statistics lies in science. “The work of a forensic investigator is to transform trace evidence into legal evidence, using scientific techniques and methods to solve criminal cases, such as homicides,” explains Chasin, noting that the Brazilian Code of Civil Procedure requires forensics units to conduct investigations even when the accused confesses to the crime.

The Federal Police (PF) currently have 51 forensics units and 1,100 forensic investigators. In 2019, 314 of those investigators had master’s degrees and 89 had PhDs, says Eduardo Mendes Cardoso, who is a forensic investigator himself. But Brazil’s investigation system is strained. “The United Nations [UN] recommends that countries have one investigator for every 5,000 people. In Brazil, the most recent data available, for 2013, indicate there is one forensic investigator for every 38,000 people,” says Cardoso.

In a doctoral thesis she defended in 2019 at USP’s School of Public Health (FSP), nursing practitioner Greice Petronilho Prata Carvalho explored the day-to-day work of a crime-scene investigation team from the Forensic Center for Crimes against Persons, at the Municipal Criminalistics Institute in São Paulo. The center has only two teams covering the entire city, each consisting of a scene investigator and a forensic photographer, working on 12-hour shifts. “They often travel as many as 300 km in a single day, investigating as many as 17 crime scenes involving homicides, suicides, killing in the course of robbery, and suspicious deaths,” she says.

Carvalho, who followed 61 scene investigations over the course of one year, says investigation teams often have insufficient time for a proper investigation, or to apply scientific methods in collecting the data needed to solve cases. After a crime occurs, the team is dispatched to the crime scene by a law enforcement authority, typically a chief of police. Their job is to collect any evidence that can help to solve the case, and material for analysis at the laboratory, such as biological samples or fingerprints. The team may consist of a lead investigator, a photographer, and a sketch preparer. “On a daily basis they deal with sensitive situations involving violence and devastated families, but their heavy workload prevents them from processing their experiences,” she says. “Of the 61 cases I followed, involving suspicious deaths, only two were confirmed to be homicides. Many cases were elderly persons who had died of natural causes,” she recalls. The people Carvalho interviewed during her research reported that a typical scene investigation, from dispatch to the medical examiner’s report, costs around R$5,000. Screening deaths more carefully and only referring genuinely suspicious deaths for investigation by the Medical Examiner Department (MED) would both save costs and ease the workload for forensic personnel.

The need for autonomy
“MEDs are the first to be affected by underinvestment in public security,” says Flavia Medeiros, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC) and a researcher at the Institute for Comparative Research in Conflict Management (INCT-InEAC). Medeiros, who has done a decade of research on forensic medicine institutions and their investigation and report production processes, says that in addition to more funding, forensic investigation units need to be separate from law enforcement. “Investigators need independence, for example, to investigate crimes in which the State is suspected of having a role,” she contends. Detaching medical examiner departments and scene investigation units from public security and civil police departments was among the recommendations made in 2014 by the National Commission for Truth (CNV) to prevent human rights violations.

Léo Ramos Chaves The coroner service in São Paulo is run by the University of São PauloLéo Ramos Chaves

Paulo Saldiva, of the Department of Pathology at the USP School of Medicine (FM), cites the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM), in Melbourne, Australia, as an internationally recognized leader in forensic pathology. The institute’s activities include forensic pathology services, research, and education. In addition to performing autopsies, medical examiners at the institute often collect material for different types of testing, including toxicological, dental, and DNA tests, to provide a complete set of information when preparing death certificates. “In Australia, only after the medical examiner has examined the body is the decision made on whether to open a police investigation,” explains Saldiva, noting that the Australian institute also has a judicial arm. While they operate on the same premises, the Justice system and the investigation system are independent and have different chains of command.

Access to the bodies of people who have died of external causes also supports the advancement of medicine. Saldiva notes how the creation of field hospitals in the 1950s enabled research on clinical complications and the development of better treatments for trauma. The Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH), created by the US Army during the Korean War (1950–1953), was a watershed in this type of research. “Violence became a driver of progress in medicine,” he says. Medical Examiner Departments have two different functions: medical examiners perform autopsies to determine the cause of death, while pathologists investigate bodies to study aspects related to medicine.

“Every emergency room surgeon would like to know, for example, why an individual with spinal cord trauma also suffers an inflammatory process. We can’t cut out a piece of the spinal cord from a living person to investigate this, but we can from a person who has died. Some diseases and complications from trauma can only be investigated through an autopsy,” says Saldiva. The bodies of people who have died from undetermined natural causes are sent for an autopsy at the Coroner Service (SVO). In São Paulo City, the service is provided by the municipal government and managed by USP. In Greater São Paulo and in other cities in the state, coroner services are provided by physicians hired by municipal governments. The bodies of people who have died of external, and often violent, causes (see diagram)—including homicides, suicides, and accidents—and the bodies of unidentified persons are sent for an autopsy by a medical examiner. Each state has its own procedures. In some locations, the coroner service is cohosted at the MED or at hospitals. “In São Paulo, researchers at USP can examine bodies arriving at the coroner service, but not those sent to the Medical Examiner Department,” says Saldiva. “Performing autopsies on people who have died of trauma as a result of motorcycle accidents, for example, could provide information useful in the development of safer helmets.”

Marco Aurélio Guimarães, who heads the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory in the Forensic Medicine Center (CEMEL) at USP’s Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine (FMRP), explains that forensic medicine is both a medical and a legal specialty. It was one of the fields that suffered most from political interference during the military dictatorship (1964–1985). The quality of higher education in forensic medicine was undermined as a result. The CEMEL was created in 1990 to support the development of the field and currently houses the MED in Ribeirão Preto. It also provides education and research in the field of forensic medicine. This collaboration has provided researchers at USP’s Ribeirão Preto campus with the opportunity to participate in autopsies, while equipping the MED with the facilities needed for its activities. “Before the CEMEL was created, autopsies in Ribeirão Preto were performed in a room at Saudade Cemetery, with no ventilation and with body fluids draining into the street gutter,” Guimarães recalls. He notes, however, that medical examiners at the Ribeirão Preto MED need to grant permission for professors and students to be present at autopsies for educational purposes. Cadaver research, a more sensitive procedure, requires an application to be submitted to an ethics committee. The partnership between the university and the MED, says the researcher, has recently suffered from a shortage of funding to purchase materials and hire new staff.

Léo Ramos Chaves Biopsy samples collected by forensic investigators for lab testingLéo Ramos Chaves

When the CEMEL was first created, the MED had 15 medical examiners, says Guimarães. “Many have since retired and have not been replaced. We are now down to six, with two vacancies left unfilled,” he says. Meanwhile, the workload has increased as a result of higher rates of violent deaths and the incorporation of new services, such as examinations for mandatory automobile liability insurance. Autopsy requests are made on the basis of police reports, and the chief of police is responsible for determining whether the autopsy will be performed by the MED or the coroner service. “Brazil is one of the only countries in the world where investigations are initiated and the cause of death is determined before the body is examined by a medical examiner,” says Guimarães.

Despite the limited capabilities, cooperation between academia and the forensic investigation system has achieved progress in different fields of knowledge. Luiz Spricigo, director of the National Forensics Institute at the Federal Police’s Technical-Scientific Department (INC/DITEC), says that forensic science has increasingly used technology and methods developed in academia to solve cases in the justice system. Some of the examples he cites include methods to assess environmental damages; trace the origin of trafficked animals, human remains, illegally logged timber, drugs, and counterfeit food products; and track down pedophiles. “New bioinformatics software systems that can handle large quantities of data have brought forensic genetic analysis to current levels of automation, supporting the development of genetic profile databases, for example,” says Spricigo. Recently, the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) created a partnership with the Federal Police (PF) and the National Office for Public Health to invest R$10 million in creating graduate programs in public security and forensic science. The initiative is building on the ProForenses program launched in 2014.

It was precisely through a collaboration with other researchers that federal police agent Bruno Requião da Cunha developed better approaches to combating child pornography networks in Brazil. The group analyzed the structure of anonymous databases investigated as part of a Federal Police operation dubbed Darknet. Between 2014 and 2016, the Federal Police monitored the activities of 182 users of a child pornography forum, which had approximately 10,000 members. The researchers used mathematics and physics to identify the key members of the organization. “We found that child pornography networks operate in a similar way to terrorist networks: when key figures are removed, they are dismantled,” he says.

Maintaining independence between parties in investigations is a challenge facing the criminal investigation system

In forensic dentistry, the absence of population-appropriate standard charts in Brazil makes age estimation problematic. Maria Gabriela Haye Biazevic, of the USP School of Dentistry, says X-rays are currently compared against international standard charts that are often poorly representative of Brazilian populations. “We are currently working on the development of reference standards that are appropriate for mixed-race populations such as Brazil’s,” she says. Age estimation through forensic dentistry is important, for example, when countries experience migration waves and governments need to determine the age of people entering the country. “People younger than 18 get special treatment,” says Biazevic. In the European Union, for example, refugee children and adolescents have access to greater protection in host countries.

In forensic chemistry, Adriano Otávio Maldaner, a federal forensic expert at the INC and a researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Analytical Science and Technologies (INCTAA), says that some of the most significant recent advancements have been in research to identify new psychoactive drugs being sold in Brazil. “International drug traffickers are bringing drugs to Brazil that contain substances not currently forbidden,” he says. Working with academia, forensic experts have been able to identify these new substances and report them to the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency (ANVISA), which then includes them on the list of forbidden substances. At the INCTAA, Maldaner has collaborated with the University of Brasília (UnB) in research to estimate drug consumption rates in Brasília based on sewer water analysis. “This year we signed an agreement with the Ministry of Citizenship to extend the study to other cities in Brazil.” The Federal Government hopes to use the findings from the survey to inform antidrug initiatives, including both prevention initiatives at schools and measures to curb the consumption of substances like cocaine.

In another research project, José Luiz da Costa, who heads the Toxicological Information and Assistance Center (CIATox) and is a professor at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) School of Pharmaceutical Science, identified new psychoactive drugs in circulation in different Brazilian cities by collecting saliva samples from volunteers during electronic music festivals. The researchers asked the individuals providing the samples whether they knew what they were taking, and noted their responses. “One of our study’s conclusions is that more than half of people think they are using a different substance than the one they actually are taking,” he says. In addition to supporting policymaking, the identification of new psychoactive drugs, says Costa, provides useful data for treating patients in emergency care.

1. Brazilian Institute for Advanced Analytics Science and Technologies (INCTAA) (no. 08/57808-1); Grant Mechanism Thematic Project; Principal Investigator Celio Pasquini; Investment R$1,733,102.25.
2. The toxicology of new psychoactive substances (NPSs): consumption epidemiology based on testing on hair and oral fluid samples (no. 18/00432-1); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator José Luiz da Costa; Investment R$105,757.54 + US$30,527.79.

Scientific articles
CUNHA, B. R. et al. Assessing police topological efficiency in a major sting operation on the dark web. Scientific Reports. Vol. 10, no. 73. Jan. 2020.
Atlas da Violência 2019. Brasília: Rio de Janeiro: São Paulo. Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada; Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública. 116 p.

MEDEIROS, F. Matar o morto – Uma etnografia do Instituto Médico-Legal do Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Série Antropologia e Ciência Política, vol. 57. p. 221.