The investigation will feature in a new RTE documentary, Cold Case Collins, set to air on Wednesday
The coroner retired in 2018 after almost 20 years of performing autopsies on the bodies of suspected victims of foul play in Ireland.
Now, 100 years after the murder of Michael Collins in West Cork during the Civil War, she has joined a team of investigators in an attempt to shed new light on speculation around Collins’s death.
The investigation will feature in a new RTE documentary, Cold Case Collins, set to air on Wednesday.
Prof Cassidy, an expert in wounds and injuries, told the Sunday World why there is a new inquiry into the murder of Michael Collins.
“There’s always been some speculation about who actually shot [him],” she explained.
“I don’t think there’s ever been anybody who said he didn’t die from a head injury and didn’t die from a gunshot injury, but it was always being speculation about who had shot him and where had the bullet come from? What direction?”
Collins died after he was ambushed on August 22, 1922.
The team led by Prof Cassidy, including forensic scientists, criminal investigators and historians, will reimagine a full investigation into the case.
At a time when Civil War raged, there was no official inquiry into Collins’s death, no records of an autopsy, and no death certificate which fuelled a century of speculation and conspiracies.
“This was a war situation, and people dying in a war situation, as even as it happens now, it’s just accepted that they’re a casualty of war and the death was treated as such, and so there wasn’t a huge inquiry,” she explained.
“We’ve taken the facts that are available to us and tried to make some sense of them.
“I think what’ll come out of this programme is that there were secrets to be hidden away, which have helped to shed some light on what happened on that day,” Prof Cassidy revealed.
“I’m hoping that it’ll put to bed some of the myths [about Collins’s murder]. People have discussed this for a long, long time.”
“[Former State Pathologist] Jack Harbison said that in his opinion, this was a rifle shot and I agree with him,” she said.
“We can never say who it was, but I think we’ve got a clearer idea of where the shot came from. I think we’ve been able to say, this is what we think happened on this day.”
Thanks to the National Museum of Ireland, the investigators were able to examine some of the evidence recovered at the time, including Michael Collins’ coat, cap and a few other items.
“We were very privileged in that they allowed us to examine some of these artefacts, which nobody had ever had access to before,” Prof Cassidy said. When it comes to working on the case, Prof Cassidy says it is just like every other cold case she has been involved in.
“I have to work with what we have, and there’s no point in saying ‘they should have done this, or they should have done that’. You can’t rewrite history.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we’d always like to rewind and go back and do things again. But you have just have to take what you’ve got and work with the material that you have.”
If the murder occurred a century later, Prof Cassidy said it would be a lot easier to solve the case, thanks to advancements in technology.
“It’s different because we’re living in a different age and I’ve been so lucky in that over the course of my career I’ve seen huge changes, not so much in the forensic pathology side of things, but certainly in the forensic science.
“Now it’s the forensic scientists who produce the evidence which convicts people. I just say this is something horrible that’s happened to somebody and I think it was somebody else who did it.
“But they’re the ones [forensic scientists] who now can actually identify who the culprit is and I think that’s been a huge step forward,” she explained.
“While I’m saying that we can’t identify who it was, if it was in the same scenario today then they would probably have been able to say exactly who it is because they would have had access to a lot more of the forensic evidence that would’ve been necessary to do that.
“But it was a different time,” she added.
The effort to re-examine the case was a collaboration between the Technical Bureau of An Garda Síochána, Forensic Science Ireland, the Irish Defence Forces and the National Museum of Ireland.
Helen Collins, a descendant of the Collins family, also contributed to the programme.
Discussing the work involved, Prof Cassidy explained that she loved the aspect of teamwork.
“Not one person has all of the information and all of the expertise and you have to accept that there are other people, there are very, very clever people, and I love working with those kinds of people.
“I love dealing with intelligent people who’ve got a lot more information than I have. I always know an expert knows more than I do about something.
“I think the key to it is finding the right people to be part of the team.”
Prof Cassidy worked on some of Ireland’s most infamous murder cases throughout her career including the deaths of Rachel O’Reilly, Sharon Whelan and Manuela Riedo.
Discussing what it takes to be a pathologist, the Scottish native said her job requires tenacity and isn’t suitable for everyone.
“I was very blessed. Jack Harbison actually saw something in me and invited me to come and join him and then because of that I naturally became the State pathologist.
“But it’s an unusual role and it’s certainly not for everyone. I think you just have to have a keen, inquiring mind and you have to be very focused and you have to know the limitations of your area of expertise,” she added.