Medical Experts “Speak” with Dead Bodies: Forensic Medicine and Criminal Intent in Mandate Palestine

By Ran Levy
Submitted to Session P4304 (In the flesh: Middle Eastern Bodies and the Construction of Power Relations, 2016 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The legal sphere in Palestine saw many changes with the inauguration of the British Mandate, opening a legal infrastructure of British courts trying civil and penal cases. Under these courts, intent filled-in a central theme in criminal deliberations. This, in turn, encouraged a growing emphasis on forensic medicine of bodies, and the testimonies of medical expert witnesses who examined them, as the most crucial means through which the court could trace intent. In other words, courts in Mandate Palestine started to perceive pathological examinations of the victimized body as a scientific way to extricate intent. The Mandate years saw the growing use of the courts in testimonies of medical experts well-versed in the interpretation of forensic examinations of injured bodies. These were mostly Arab Christians employed in state hospitals, working under the supervision of the Palestinian Coroner’s Office.
I ask what role the body and its forensic examination played in criminal adjudications and how this new legal emphasis affected the role of the medical expert as an expert witness in the Palestinian legal discourse. I show that the ability to analyze the body in a scientific way elevated the role medical experts played in court, while their testimonies tremendously influenced the decisions in penal cases. This was imbued with colonial meanings of surveillance and control; the new place the body occupied in penal law reveals how the Mandatory government sought to harness the legal sphere to enforce a new colonial order. While the scientific evaluation of the body was perceived as a neutral process stripped of colonial intention, it actually promoted the penetration of the British to the most private realm of the colonial "self", changing the very core of local legal values and virtues such as the categorization of an act of crime.
I focus on the court records of the murder of Jamil al-Bahri (1930) as a case study. Analysis of court deliberations will provide a unique perspective into the important role Dr. Zāhen Ḥadad played as expert witness, “speaking” with the body of the victim through a forensic examination and extricating the intent of those who stood behind the murder. This scientific ability to “speak” with dead bodies influenced the criminal discourse developed around the case, and his testimony was most important in the decision of the court to incriminate the accused.