Alleged hanging alone unlikely cause of Sa'u's death, Pathologist says

A Forensic Pathologist from Australia has testified that the former Chief Executive Officer of the Unit Trust of Samoa (U.T.O.S.), Sa’u Justina Fa’asamoa, likely died from multiple neck injuries - including hanging and strangulation. 

Dr. Paul Botterill, who conducted the autopsy for Sa’u, did not rule out hanging as a contributing factor to the injuries to the deceased’s neck. 

However, the Pathologist said it is highly unlikely the rope or noose alone could account for the multiple injuries found on her neck. 

“Neck compression is the cause of these injuries because of the injuries seen on skin surface, on tissues under the skin,” said Dr. Botterrill while making reference to photo exhibits. 

“I think its most likely strangulation that will explain the petechiae [skin discolourations].” 

Petechiae are formed when tiny blood vessels called capillaries break open. According to the Forensic Pathologist, the colour of Sa’u’s upper neck and face was redder than the rest of the body. 

Sa’u’s husband, Kolani Junior Lam, has been accused of the murder of his wife and a common assault offence against his step-daughter, Talei Kelsall, and conspiracy to defeat the cause of justice. 

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him and his defence centres on the claim that his wife allegedly took her own life. 

In his evidence, Dr. Botterill said it was unlikely that the multiple injuries on Sa’u’s neck were caused by a single application of neck compression. 

He said even if someone is hanging with their hand on the side of the neck, that pressure could presumably cause bruising underneath that knuckle associated with hanging, but it doesn’t explain the many bruises on the side of the neck. 

“Again any one of those injuries could be associated with ligature [rope] of hanging but its highly unlikely that [injuries] all can be explained by hanging,” he said. 

“We see hanging frequently in Australia, we see many, hundreds of hanging over the last decades and I can’t recall a single case such an extent of underlying bruising has been seen…” 

The Forensic Pathologist said this can only be possible if the person suffers from bleeding disorder. 

From the post-mortem findings, Sa’u was not found to have such an easy bleeding disorder as is found in people who have leukemia or  cancer of the blood cells. 

The Prosecutor and Assistant Attorney General, Magele Leone Su’a, asked the witness to explain what he meant when he said the injuries cannot have come from a single application of force. 

In response, Dr. Botterill explained if there were multiple episodes of application of the ligature, each one could conceivably result in additional bruising beneath the skin surface. 

He added it was hard to imagine any scenario of a single application of force that resulted in the injuries found on the deceased’s body. 

“It is unlikely to have caused bruising to eight areas of the neck,” he said. 

Asked in his medical opinion, what would have been consistent with the cause of multiple bruising, the Pathologist said it was likely force of multiple finger tips. 

“Again it is possible some of the bruises could have caused by surface ligature which may have occurred where the body was found hanging but that can’t explain the multiple internal injuries," he said.

“I think hanging alone may explain some of the internal bruising but I don’t believe it can explain all the internal bruising which is an additional application of force in whatever context it must’ve been.” 

Dr. Botterill was the only witness on Friday. 

The hearing will continue on Monday. 

The Defence lawyer is Leiataualesa Komisi Koria. Justice Mata Keli Tagaloa is presiding over the trial. 

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