It is well-known in pathology that physical trauma, especially when combined with a pre-existing heart condition, can trigger a heart attack in a person. Some heart conditions don’t show symptoms day-to-day, so a patient may not be aware that they have them. The effects of a sudden adrenaline surge brought on by an intense experience, such as being unexpectedly assaulted, can also have a delayed effect in causing a heart attack.
In cases where police assault may have preceded a heart attack, a finding of a “natural” cause of death does not necessarily absolve the police of any wrongdoing, says forensic pathologist Dr. Steve Naidoo.
Naidoo has decades of experience in analysing custody and police action related deaths in South Africa. He testified as an expert witness in the recent inquests into the deaths of Neil Aggett and Ahmed Timol, both of whom died in police custody at John Vorster Square, in Johannesburg, during apartheid.
He believes autopsy findings should be interpreted in light of circumstantial evidence, for a fuller understanding of why deaths occurred. He believes, for instance, that where heart failure may present as the direct “structural” or “biological” cause of death to a pathologist, the underlying circumstances which preceded the death should not be overlooked during an investigation.
In 2014, he conducted a private, second autopsy on the body of Zinakile Fica, a 41-year-old man who died in police custody in Prospecton, south of Durban.
It appears that a state pathologist had previously found that Fica had died of a heart attack, and this may have been cause enough for the investigator to have concluded that the death was due to “natural causes” (as it was recorded in IPID’s intake register that year).
In any event, at the time in 2014, there is no record in the registers of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) that it recommended prosecution or disciplinary action against police officers who were present in the room when Fica died. Yet, IPID reported the case as a statistical success twice over. Firstly, because it was completed and secondly because it was completed quickly, within a 90-day target. The dangers of IPID’s push for quantity and quick turn-around in pursuit of performance targets was the subject of Viewfinder’s exposé on the directorate last year.
Then Naidoo’s autopsy report was published. It drew on witness statements to conclude that Fica was almost certainly being “tubed” – a common form of police torture wherein officers repeatedly suffocate suspects to the point of blackout – when he suffered a heart attack. Where the heart attack was the direct cause of death, Naidoo concluded that it was “very likely induced by a most severe physiological stress of near-asphyxiation”.
While the IPID investigator was present at Naidoo’s autopsy on Fica, she did not wait for his report to be published before formally “completing” her investigation.
Naidoo’s finding exposed shortcomings in IPID’s initial investigation of the Fica case. In light of these shortcomings, national head of investigations Matthews Sesoko reported to Viewfinder last year that IPID had decided to relook at the case and had moved the investigation from KwaZulu-Natal to head office in Pretoria. Sesoko has since been suspended and IPID failed to respond to a request for an update.