A forensic pathologist is a licensed medical doctor who does physical examinations of people who have died or of people who have been injured in a potentially criminal manner. When the forensic pathologist examines the dead primarily, he or she may be working as a medical examiner, though this term is sometimes not used. Those pathologists who primarily examine the living may sometimes be called clinical forensic pathologists. However, some of these professionals perform examinations on the dead and the living.
Typically the forensic pathologist who does not work in a clinical setting examines a body to determine cause of death, usually at any time the cause is not known, and they might also be asked to examine a body and do what is necessary to determine identity. It would be easy to say that the only thing these doctors do is perform autopsies, but this is not the case. They may first examine the exterior of a body for physical injury and document any evidence of this, and take blood and tissue samples to determine what substances (such as poisons or drugs) were in a body. They also must collect any physical evidence that is on a body that might suggest a crime has been committed or that could lead to finding a person responsible for that crime.
Certainly, the forensic pathologist will usually perform an autopsy, but the degree to which it is necessary may be up to the doctor’s discretion. If cause of death is determined before a full autopsy occurs, it may not always be necessary to proceed with an examination. No matter what the findings of an examination, these physicians must be very good at documenting them.
When a crime has taken place, forensic pathologists may be asked to testify in court about their findings. They also may be asked to testify specifically as to how they think death might have occurred when a violent crime has taken place and in keeping with their knowledge about the injuries of the person and the way in which such injuries usually occur. Similarly clinical pathologists might be required to testify to their findings regarding the injuries of a living person in the context of criminal or civil court proceedings. Giving testimony requires having reliable notes from autopsies or examinations so that the testimony is accurate.
Since examination may occur in the context of a crime, a forensic pathologist may have studied some extra things that aren’t fully related to medicine. They may for instance have extra knowledge in areas like toxicology (study of poisons), the finding and gathering of trace evidence, analysis of DNA and in other fields like ballistics. Ballistics involves trajectories of objects in movement and makes it possible for doctors to project the precise way in which injuries occurred when varying weapons or objects were used to cause them.