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Belgium fails to identify 75 ‘perfect crime’ homicides per year due to lack of budget

11:30 02/05/2022

Belgium misses an estimated 75 ‘perfect crime’ murders a year due to the lack of autopsies performed in the event of death, which is a result of budgetary restrictions. 

While European guidelines recommend that an autopsy be performed in 10% of death cases, Belgium’s actual rate is between 1-2%, Le Soir reports.

Forensic scientists working for the justice system say they are overwhelmed by unpaid bills and paperwork, and that it would take around €20 million a year to reduce the number of ignored homicides.

They are also calling for a new law that would see autopsies conducted in a more systematic way.

One frustrated forensic scientist is Dr Philippe Boxho, who stepped down last month from his position as vice-president and spokesperson of the Francophone Medical Association.

Boxho described an overload of work at the forensic institute of the University of Liège (pictured), which he heads, due to a lack of forensic doctors to assist him in judicial expertise. 

“We, experts in criminal matters, are forgotten and despised. Not one of my students wants to work for the justice system; they all go into the private sector,” he said. 

The forensic scientist criticised the government for not paying all of its bills. “The atmosphere is gloomy, and for good reason: it was only after threatening the ministry of justice with legal action that the institute managed to negotiate the payment of €800,000 out of the one million it is owed in arrears. We're losing 20% of what they owe us, but at least we're getting something back.”

Boxho said the budget situation has become so dire, he isn’t certain he can replace vital equipment were it to cease working. 

“The perfect crime only exists in Belgium because of the lack of public authorities,” said Boxho.

Behind in payments, overwhelmed by paperwork

Forensic scientists awaiting overdue payments from the Ministry of Justice have additional problems: since 2020, their administrative tasks have greatly increased.

“For each mission, we now have to send the tax office our statement of expenses, the requisition and the approval of the report we have drawn up,” explained Dr Jean-Pol Beauthier of the Charleroi forensic medicine centre. 

“This approval must come from the examining magistrate or the King's prosecutor, who also has other things to do.”

Boxho echoed the concerns regarding bureaucracy, and raised additional ones regarding the autonomy of experts who must rely on a magistrate to validate their reports through a time-consuming process with little transparency.

“This administrative work drives us crazy and makes us lose money: a magistrate once failed to validate one of my reports; an expert report for which I had paid a mentor €700. Since there was no approval in time, I will never be paid. I paid out money and I don't earn any. Try and attract new forensic experts when you work in these conditions.”

About 15% of deaths declared 'natural' are not

Belgium has long been a poor performer when it comes to the Council of Europe's recommendations on forensic expertise. 

Its 1-2% rate of conducting autopsies despite a 10% European guideline is especially low compared to other countries: autopsy rates are around 8% in Germany, 12% in the US, 24% in England and even 30-50% in the Scandinavian countries.

“The Nordic countries have a much more pragmatic vision, whereas in [our] mentality, it is seen as an aggression. This is a mistake,” said Boxho. “Not caring how the person died is the problem! And autopsies are always done in a respectful manner.”

Dr Jean-Pol Beauthier and professor Wim Van de Voorde (KUL) published a study on ignored homicides: every year in Belgium, about 75 murders are said to be overlooked. 

“It is difficult to estimate the number of homicides that escape criminal justice, precisely because they are not detected,” said Beauthier. 

“But the number of cases that come back to us after a late confession, for example, when the death was classified as a natural death, can serve as an indicator. For us, in our country, about 15% of deaths declared 'natural' are not.”

General practitioners called in when a death occurs, may find themselves surrounded by a family they know and with whom they have established ties, which forensic experts say could make it difficult for them to announce a death as suspicious. 

Similarly, GPs aren’t trained to detect discreet signs of homicide and, according to formal complaints, sometimes face pressure from police to declare a natural death. Pressure can also come from undertakers, who need a certificate of natural death to be able to return the body to the family.

A 2012 bill proposed by neurosurgeon Jacques Brotchi to conduct autopsies in a more systematic manner was never adopted, but forensic scientists today would like to see the topic put back onto the agenda. 

“If the death is suspicious, it will have a cost for society with the investigation and possible other legal consequences,” conceded Boxho. “But that's why we're here, to protect society!”

 

Written by Helen Lyons