Investigating the current scope and potential of forensic entomology in decomposition cases at Salt River Mortuary, Cape Town, South Africa

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Decomposition cases form a fraction of the medico-legal cases conducted at Salt River Mortuary (SRM). With prolonged time since death and increased decomposition, entomological evidence becomes increasingly important in the estimation of minimum post-mortem interval. Currently no standard protocol exists for the handling of entomological evidence by SRM personnel and there is a lack of information about the issues that may impact the handling of these death scenes and associated entomological evidence. Therefore, this study aimed to investigate the current scope of cases involving entomological evidence at SRM. This was achieved by performing a six-year retrospective review of medico-legal cases performed at SRM from 2015 to 2020, and interviewing SRM personnel to gather data regarding attended scenes, methods and processes used on the scenes, and issues they may have faced. A total of 264 decomposition cases were examined at SRM in the six-year period, with 109 (41.3%) presenting with insect activity. Data about variables such as scene type, weather season, decomposition stage, burial or covering of remains, and open wounds were extracted from the case files. As expected, a greater proportion of cases presented with entomological evidence in the warmer summer and spring seasons compared to the cooler seasons, with no significant difference in the distribution between years (p=0.62). Insect activity was predominantly found in indoor cases, but this is not statistically significant (p=0.50). Most cases presenting with entomology activity were associated with early-stage decomposition. No association was observed between the presence of open wounds and insect activity. The interviews provided data that could not be extracted in the reviews, due to personal experience being provided by personnel. The primary themes emerging from the interviews were related to the insufficient training on the handling of entomological evidence, poor availability of resources for the handling of the entomological evidence, and scene dependent variables that differ between scenes and impacts how a scene is handled. This study identified areas that need improvement and provides a better understanding of entomological activity associated with decomposition cases. There is potential for the greater utility of forensic entomologists in medico-legal cases, and the implementation of a standardised entomological protocol along with proper training of personnel may improve medico-legal investigations of decomposition cases.