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Oscar Pistorius learns graphic autopsy details: Autopsy 101 tutorial

Oscar Pistorius vomits during autopsy testimony by the pathologist during his murder trial.
Oscar Pistorius vomits during autopsy testimony by the pathologist during his murder trial.
Siphiwe Sibeko/EPA

Despite a South African judge ruling against graphic details being publicized by the press regarding the autopsy of Reeva Steenkamp, the Oscar Pistorius trial spectators were still able to learn what caused the paralympic athlete to retch repeatedly throughout his murder trial on Monday, March 10, 2014, according to ESPN.

And while the public at large may not know the exact details shared with the court due to the judge's order, they can better understand the process of an autopsy through the eyes of the Atlanta Top News Examiner, who has observed such a procedure in person.

Oscar Pistorius may have vomited during the graphic testimony shared on Monday, but he is not alone when it comes to not being able to handle the details provided in an autopsy. The fear someone will vomit during such a procedure is a common concern of the ME's offices in America, when they allow police and others to witness a real autopsy in person.

But not everyone gets physically sick while observing the cutting open of a corpse from head to pubic bone, are when the smells of death that permeate the air from gases and fluids released during the process engulf them. And that isn't always a bad thing, as those are the people who can carry out such a difficult task and help the prosecutors in the country gain justice for the dead victims. And victims need that if they don't want their killers to go free, as prosecutors know.

Yet it is understandable that someone who was close to the victim would be disturbed by mere talk about how their loved one's body was destroyed during their violent death. And that explains why Pistorius needed the bucket by his side during testimony today, so he could physically be sick as he heard those terrible details being discussed during his murder trial.

In America the jury and the court spectators often see and hear the graphic autopsy details during the course of a murder trial, too. And the press is allowed to share them as well. But in South Africa, as a courtesy to the victim's family members, the press have been ordered to refrain from doing so.

But that leaves a void for the people around the world who are following this trial in the press. Most of them want to better understand exactly what kind of physical damage Reeva Steenkamp sustained after Oscar Pistorius opened fire upon her from the other side of his bathroom door. And they can't really know that without understanding the autopsy process better. And the victim's family needs their support, so the more they know the greater the support they can show.

Reeva Steenkamp autopsy

After Steenkamp's body had been removed from Pistorius' home following her Valentine's Day death, the medical examiner in South Africa would have followed a similar process as is followed in the states: collection of all forensic evidence from the victim's body and clothing (which would have been documented through photographs and other means, then removed and packaged for evidence preservation).

The body of the athlete's girlfriend was covered with blood when she was transported away from his home, which would have had to have been cleansed from it during the course of the autopsy preparation period. So the pathologist and his assistants would have had to rinse the blood from Reeva's body first, so he could see all scratches, bruises and injuries more clearly. That is typically done on a sterile stainless steel surface, where the autopsy is performed.

The South African male celebrity was not present when Reeva would have been laid on this surface and taken apart from head to toe to determine the extent of the damage done to her by him. But he had to sit through court on Monday and hear about the size of injuries and damage to tissue and organs that resulted from his shooting his fiance with three bullets designed to open up and cause maximum damage to their target.

Pistorius did not have to witness the tools used to open up his former girlfriend in order to give police the information they need about her extensive wounds. He didn't have to hear the saw used to cut through bones and brain, or to see the final humiliation and loss of privacy a murder victim must endure to ensure justice. But Reeva did, of course. And hopefully the South African judge hearing this case will rule favorably on her behalf as a result.

Maximum damage bullets

Gunshot wounds caused by standard bullets have the potential to do extensive damage to an individual's body, but bullets created to wreak major havoc on the interior of a body or brain leave behind a carnage that is sometimes indescribable to the lay person.

On Monday Oscar Pistorius learned that the bullets he fired into Reeva Steenkamp lay her arm, groin and face apart in ways he likely never imagined, increasing the diameter size of each wound considerably, not to mention the internal organs and tissue impacted.

The pathologist who performed Reeva Steenkamp's autopsy would have given exact details about the size and location of each of those wounds to the court. He would have shared the size of each organ removed from her body at the time (if the organ had not sustained so much damage it could not be pieced back together for such a calculation). And he would have even told the weight of each organ and what were the final contents in her stomach, piecing together her last meal.

In addition, the Reeva Steenkamp autopsy pathologist would have provided a visual drawing of a body on paper, labeling the document to reflect where each injury appeared on the victim, and its size. So the double amputee standing trial for murder would have been able to see and hear the extensive damage that can result from the use of a gun and hollow-point bullets on a human body.

And Pistorius would have likely been sickened to learn that he inflicted that damage on his girlfriend. And, according to press reports, he was, retching continuously through the trial, and looking like he was finally understanding exactly what he put his fiance through on the most celebrated love day of the year.

The Atlanta Top News Examiner has a degree in criminal justice and behavioral forensics. She has witnessed graphic autopsy exams and sympathizes with families who have to hear those accounts in the court of law. But she is thankful that the process exists for the South African murder trial of Oscar Pistorius, as it is the only way that Reeva Steenkamp can receive justice as a victim and that her family can best understand what happened to her, and how.

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