The spoken word is valid!
Most esteemed Presidents
Prof. Ritz-Timme and Prof. Rothschild,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It’s my honor and privilege to address you today on behalf of the government of North Rhine-Westphalia and extend a very warm “Welcome to Düsseldorf” to our guests who have traveled from all over the world to participate in this conference.
The advances in Legal Medicine have widely influenced legal procedures in the last decades. Medical assessments and forensic expertise are getting more and more important in every lawyer’s daily work. At the same time, the law is gaining greater influence on medicine. Medicine is not only at the center of all medical malpractice cases. No litigation on compensation for injuries, no trail before a Social Court is possible without medical expertise. And criminal proceedings of course are not at all conceivable without various experts, from the professional recording of injuries to blood alcohol determination to the psychiatric assessments of the accused.
Without a basic knowledge of the law, however, the medical expert cannot fathom out the court's questions. And without basic scientific knowledge a judge cannot exercise his office. He could not estimate the medical expertise. Besides, he wouldn’t even know what to ask the expert in the first place. So we depend on one another every day.
Unfortunately, doctors and lawyers traditionally have problems communicating. One reason for this is certainly the very different way in which the two professions work: lawyers are looking for precise terms, physicians decide according to probabilities and sometimes more intuitively. While the physician has to decide and act in dialogue with the patient on the spot and often under time pressure, the lawyer judges in retrospect from his safe desk and according to his files. For many practical physicians legal categories therefore appear very unrealistic if not simply weird.
In this situation, legal medicine plays a key role. As a cross-discipline, it is the irreplaceable intermediary between law and medicine. And the fascination for legal medicine remains unchanged, as numerous television shows all over the world indicate. However, the viewer of a TV-show prefers not to see too many creepy details of a medical examinations. Television is harmless compared to reality. Young lawyers notice this at the latest when, for the first time, they are standing next to an autopsy table - with a greenish color on their face. An experience that can only be recommended because it teaches respect, not just before legal medicine, but also before death.
Legal medicine also gives irreplaceable impulse towards progress in criminalistics and law. It took some time and effort to make lawyers aware of the effects of alcohol on human responsiveness. But finally the consequences were stricter laws and punishments for drunk driving. Legal medicine is furthermore a necessary corrective - for lawyers and for physicians. Judges and doctors can be mistaken, and it is not easy for some of them – used to great professional independence – to admit this in an individual case. Frequently it is the legal medicine that reveals the error. Frequently it’s a forensic expert who detects the injuries of a mistreated child, where the family doctor missed a closer look. And in case of a suspected treatment disorder, patients and their relatives can and will trust in legal medicine.
Hardly any achievement in legal medicine shows the importance of scientific control clearer than the DNA analysis. The improved analysis of mixed traces solved a number of so-called “cold cases” in recent years. Only a few weeks ago, in North Rhine-Westphalia, a holdup murder case was solved after more than 11 years, because new methods of investigation were able to break down the traces. But the DNA analysis does not only bring criminals behind bars, it also brings freedom to innocent people. In the United States alone, more than 250 innocent people were released because their cases had to be reviewed after a DNA analysis.
With great interest I read that you are going to devote yourself to these questions during a workshop. Your research is especially interesting for legal policy in Germany because we are currently discussing whether we should expand the use of DNA analysis in criminal proceedings. Eye color, hair color, skin color, age, even the biogeographical origin can be deduced from a DNA trace with considerable probability. But should we actually allow every evidence in court just because medicine can determine it in a laboratory? This is an ethical question and we will have to deal with that problem together.
This leads me to a very important conclusion: You can only exercise your role as an intermediary between law and medicine, as a corrective authority and a creator of progress, if you can do so independently.
It is no coincidence that in 1968 the “German Society for Judiciary Medicine” (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Gerichtliche Medizin) changed its name to “German Society for Legal Medicine” (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Rechtsmedizin). For your assignment is not to serve the judiciary but to serve the law. Legal medicine must be free to express uncomfortable truths. Whoever measures the value of science solely by the amount of fundings in third-party projects does not value the importance of independent determination of truth in a free and democratic society. This part of your task is more important than ever in the age of fake news and conspiracy theories all over the internet.
In this spirit I wish you a most fruitful symposium with interesting and stimulating discussions and every success in your future work.