Why the cause of death is important in law

Saturday March 23 2019



Dr Sylvester Onzivua

Dr Sylvester Onzivua 

By Dr Sylvester Onzivua

On the night of February 23, 2007, Patrick of Busia Township came home and found his father, Alex Elijah, quarrelling with his (father’s) younger wife and he tried to intervene. Instead, his father insulted him and accused him of seducing his (father’s) wife.
Patrick left his father’s house and returned to his own house, which was a stone’s throw away. Unfortunately, his father attempted to follow him into the house. Patrick tried to prevent the father from entering his house but the father allegedly stabbed him with a sharp object, on the left side of the chest.

Patrick almost collapsed as he complained of pain in the chest. He was taken to a nearby hospital on a bicycle and admitted.
A week later, he was transferred to the regional hospital, where he was admitted. He made a police statement to the effect that his father had stabbed him. However, Patrick’s condition deteriorated and he died on March 13, 2007. Alex Elijah, Patrick’s father, was subsequently charged with the offence of murder.

Witnesses
Patrick’s wife was the principle witness for the prosecution. She testified that her father-in-law followed her husband to their home and stabbed him with a sharp object.
She, however, during the cross-examination admitted that she did not actually see her father-in-law stabbing her husband, but heard him (her husband) scream.

She further told court that she saw a wound on the right side of her husband immediately after he was stabbed. Patrick’s wife also testified that her husband complained of chest pain while at the hospital.
The investigating officer told court that he visited Patrick in hospital and saw him bandaged on the left part of the chest, which he, the investigating officer, concluded, must have been caused by Alex Elijah. He further testified that he went to Patrick’s house and saw blood stains at the main door.

Postmortem results
A postmortem was performed on the body of Patrick on March 14, 2007, a day after he had died. The doctor noted a scar on the left side of the chest and another on the right shoulder. The doctor found that the lung had collapsed and there was pus in the chest.
The doctor recorded the cause of death as cardiopulmonary arrest, due to respiratory distress, secondary to pus in the chest caused by lung collapse. The doctor concluded that the death was from natural causes since it was caused by a pneumonia infection.

Similar cases
In a similar case, a one Gichunge was convicted of murder. He had stabbed another person in the chest, causing the collapse of the left lung. The victim was admitted to hospital and later discharged. Thirty six days after being wounded and 15 days after being discharged from hospital, the victim died.
According to the postmortem report, the victim’s death was due to pneumonia and tetanus, following a stabbing injury to the chest. The doctor’s report as to the cause of death was admitted without the doctor being called as a witness.
In yet another case, Fred appealed his conviction for murder to the Supreme Court; the Court of Appeal had upheld the conviction. Fred, who led a gang of attackers, broke into a man’s house and cut him on the head with a panga.

Fred was arrested at the scene of crime while the man, who was cut on the head, was taken to hospital, admitted and treated. He was discharged but a month later died at his home.
According to the postmortem report, the body of the deceased had a cut wound on the scalp and the body was noted to be discharging pus from the nose and mouth. The doctor stated the cause of death as “internal hemorrhage complicating into infection”.

Cause of death
One of the grounds of appeal to the Supreme Court, was that the prosecution did not discharge the burden of proof, beyond reasonable doubt, that the injury sustained by the deceased was the direct cause of death.
A cause of death is defined as the initial injury or the immediate disease condition responsible for setting into motion other patho-physiological events leading to the death. The patho-physiological events are called the mechanisms of death, or how such a death was brought about.

In the courts of law, the cause of death must be linked to the actions or omissions of the accused. It must be proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that it was the actions or omissions on the part of the accused person, which led to the death complained of.
Failure to link the cause of death to the accused person or any doubt as to the cause of death will be resolved in favour of the accused person.

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