Silent Witness: How Forensic Anthropology is Used to Solve the World's Toughest Crimesby Roxana Ferllini, Cyril Wecht (Contribution by), Cyril H. Wecht (Foreword by)
"Bones have an uncanny knack of holding important clues as to the fate of the individuals to whom they belonged."
As portrayed in mystery novels and more than nine television shows including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, American Justice and City Confidential, forensic anthropologists work in an environment where the stakes/i>/i>/i>/p>/i>
"Bones have an uncanny knack of holding important clues as to the fate of the individuals to whom they belonged."
As portrayed in mystery novels and more than nine television shows including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, American Justice and City Confidential, forensic anthropologists work in an environment where the stakes are high, the pressure is intense, and their findings are vital in criminal investigations. It's a fascinating and often dramatic world.
Go behind the scenes with forensic anthropologists and learn about their techniques, how they locate a body, how they carefully uncover evidence, and how the unique characteristics of each body bears silent witness to age, sex, cause of death and clues as to who or what was responsible.
With 29 real-life case studies and more than 350 color photographs and illustrations, Silent Witness is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the world of forensics.
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Forensic Anthropology and Other Sciences
The skills of forensic anthropologists are required in a myriad of situations in which human remains need to be identified. A person's death can be precipitated by a variety of reasons-aviation disasters, explosions, fires, drowning, homicides, and violations of human rights. Ascertaining a victim's identity isn't always straightforward, especially when their remains ore altered beyond recognition. This is where the knowledge of forensic anthropologists comes into play.
The Role of Forensic Anthropologists
Anthropology studies humankind, and divides into three key categories: archeology, cultural anthropology, and physical anthropology, also known as biological anthropology. The latter incorporates such subjects as human evolution, modern human variability, development and growth, genetics, human osteology (the study of bones), primatology (the study of monkeys and apes) and related subjects. Expertise in human osteology led to the involvement of physical anthropologists in forensics, the field which pertains directly to legal issues, popularly referred to as forensic anthropology.
Within modern forensics, forensic anthropology is an invaluable investigative tool for solving difficult and sensitive criminal cases, aiding the accurate identification of human remains of missing persons, accident victims, or those who suffered a far more traumatic and sinister fate at the hands of criminals.
Specifically, forensic anthropology identifies skeletal human remains where bones are the only evidence. Often, these may have been burned beyond recognition, or may have been mutilated by explosives, as the result of an airplane crash or train collision, for example. Forensic anthropologists often assist in the investigation of crime, such as a murder involving dismemberment of the victim, and frequently examine and analyze human remains that may be in a state of advanced decomposition. The skills of the forensic anthropologist are crucial in the recovery of individuals from a single crime scene, such as a mass grave. In this case, its application ensures that the remains are attributed accurately to the individuals during their exhumation. The forensic anthropologist may also reconstruct remains, such as skulls and other parts of the skeleton, to analyze the physical effects of traumas to the body, such as gunshot or other fatal wounds. Finally, the forensic anthropologist may be called upon when human remains cannot be identified by conventional means, such as facial characteristics or fingerprints.
Because of their expertise in identifying human remains, forensic anthropologists are instrumental in the investigation and management of crime scenes. By applying a variety of careful and precise archeological techniques, they can assist in the recovery of the victims. These techniques resemble those utilized in digs at archeological sites, where the remains of earlier civilizations are recovered, although slight variations may be necessary to meet legal requirements. The application of such techniques to a legal investigation is referred to as forensic archeology. The forensic anthropologist's role is to work alongside a team of other forensic investigators, each of whom collects and analyzes different types of evidence and data. These combined results help form a complete picture of events. The findings may then be utilized during criminal trials and coroner's investigations where the forensic anthropologist may be called upon to give expert testimony.
The advent of forensic anthropology
Compared to other criminal sciences, forensic anthropology is a relatively new discipline. Its beginnings date back to the end of the 19th century and the studies conducted by Dr. Thomas Dwight (1843-1911). Based at the University of Harvard, Massachusetts, Dr. Dwight is referred to as the 'Father of American Forensic Anthropology.' Indeed, the origin, development, and refinement of this fascinating science occurred predominantly in the USA.
Dr. Dwight's analysis of human skeletons took place where the Harvard Medical School stands today, thanks to the donation of the land by Dr. Parkman (see Case study No.1). Being by profession an anatomist, Dwight was one of the first academics to take a particular interest in the clues that bones provide to a person's identity. It was soon realized that this information could be applied directly to the medico-legal field.
Dr. Dwight's research on bones, completed in a proper and thorough fashion for the first time, demonstrated how much the skeleton can tell us about an individual (see Chapter 2). Additionally, the variability between skeletons was analyzed in depth. Subjects covered included human stature and the statistical study of bones to determine sex, height, and age. The nature of Dwight's work made him a pioneer in the field, and sowed the seeds for the development and evolution of forensic anthropology.
Other leading forensic anthropologists
Dwight's pioneering work influenced others, who continued the research to assist forensic investigators in their task of identifying human remains solely by examining bones and determining their biological profile. The latter refers to the sex, age, ancestry, stature, and individual characteristics of the body in question.
Among Dr. Dwight's followers was Dr. George A. Dorsey (1869-1931). He studied anthropology at Harvard, and subsequently became involved in the sensational Luetgert case in Chicago (see Case study No.2).
During the first half of the 20th century, skeletal analysis became more established until, eventually, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) became interested in employing forensic anthropological analysis as an investigative tool in many of their cases. They called upon the services of anthropologists, including Dr. T. D. Stewart, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Stewart also helped identify casualties from World War II and the Korean War. When considering the effects of combat upon the human body, one must keep in mind that the weapons utilized have become progressively more devastating and capable of inflicting substantial wounds, making identification of individuals far more difficult and time-consuming.
The need to recover and identify deceased soldiers so that they could be repatriated and returned to their families became of paramount importance. Such work was carried out in World War II, in both the European and Pacific theaters of war.
In 1947, the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (CILHI) was established by the US government. It still remains active, devoted to the identification and repatriation of American soldiers from World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and also the Vietnam conflict. Over the years, it has employed a great number of forensic scientists, including many forensic anthropologists.
These scientists travel to a variety of field locations, including the South Pacific, where they are required to recover and identify the remains of missing US service personnel. Preliminary analysis takes place in the country where the remains are discovered, with the participation of local forensic scientists. During this initial study, it is important to determine that the remains are not from the native population. This is accomplished by reference to the statistical characteristics that different populations exhibit at skeletal level. The remains are then taken to the CILHI and the final identification process initiated -- a biological profile of each set of remains is created and compared to the available database. At the time of writing, it is estimated that tens of thousands of American soldiers are still officially 'missing in action.'
As a discipline, forensic anthropology became consolidated in 1972, when the Physical Anthropology Section was accepted at the American Academy of Forensic Science. Today, forensic anthropology is widely used to solve a variety of crimes, in particular genocide (see Chapter 8). International teams of forensic experts are regularly assembled by organizations such as the United Nations, to aid the identification and recovery of human remains throughout the world. Such efforts have involved the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, and the Physicians for Human Rights in Boston, Massachusetts, among others.
A multidisciplinary approach
In a legal investigation, the forensic anthropologist works alongside several other investigators in the field.
The forensic pathologist analyzes soft tissue for any marks left on a body. Soft tissue may exhibit evidence of foul play, struggle, torture, or other physical traumas. A forensic pathologist can often determine the cause and manner of death by carrying out an autopsy upon the remains.
Another scientific discipline related to forensic anthropology cases is forensic entomology. In most instances, a body will have eggs deposited on it by flies, which often occurs immediately after death. These eggs hatch rapidly into larvae, and their stage of development provides the forensic entomologist with an accurate time of death, vital information in a legal investigation. The species of larvae present upon the body indicate the time of year when the death took place, in addition to the climatic conditions at the time. Since the fly larvae consume the flesh of the remains, they also absorb any drugs, legal or illegal, that the deceased person may have ingested. Even if the remains are practically skeletonized, the larvae may still provide an accurate indication of any drugs present in the body at the time of death.
Forensic botanists also play an important role in criminal cases, since occasionally botanical matter (vegetation) is associated with the remains or the site being investigated, and the plants must therefore be identified. Forensic botanists can deduce if a body has been moved from its original resting place and, if so, can suggest the type of area from which it may have come. Additionally, they can link any plant matter from the scene with that found upon the victim's personal effects, or in his or her car or home. This is possible because plants can be identified through microscopic characteristics, such as seeds and spores. Also, many plants grow exclusively in particular areas and, often, localized ecosystems.
Some biologists specialize in molecular biology and can carry out DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) analysis of the protein that carries a person's genetic blueprint. Although DNA is a positive means of identifying a body, the cooperation of a forensic anthropologist is often required, particularly if the remains of an individual are mixed with others, as in a mass grave. In such a situation, the remains require proper separation to determine how many bodies are present. If this is not done with care, it may be impossible to determine the biological profile of each individual. This information is essential, since each profile will be compared to a database of missing persons. The relatives of likely individuals from the database may then be contacted, and a DNA comparison carried out. This may lead to the case being resolved.
Forensic odontologists (dentists) also play a key role in the process of identifying the deceased, by analyzing the dental work upon the teeth present at the time of death. They then compare their analysis with an antemortem record. Dentures may also be used in this particular type of analysis. Anthropologists and odontologists are expected to work together when the remains of more than one person have become mixed, even in cases where the dental remains can be analyzed and compared with antemortem records.
Due to the multidisciplinary approach to forensic work, the investigation of criminal cases today involves far more comprehensive analysis than even a few decades ago, and produces more accurate results.
Case Study No. 1/USA/1849
Dr. John Webster
On Friday, November 23, 1849, 59-year-old Dr. George Parkman, a wealthy physician and prominent member of Boston society, disappeared.
Although a medical doctor by profession, most of Parkman's business dealings revolved around his extensive real-estate holdings and money lending. He would regularly collect what was owed to him in person, and usually on foot. When last seen in public, he had been on his way to the Harvard Medical College to meet his friend and colleague, Dr. John W. Webster, a professor of chemistry and mineralogy.
Through his efforts, Dr. Webster attained a high social standing, but he was not very adept at managing his finances. To ease his financial burden, he decided to borrow money from Dr. Parkman. By 1849, he was in debt to Parkman to the tune of $2,432 -- a considerable sum for the time. To secure the loan, Webster mortgaged a variety of personal possessions, including a valuable mineral collection. To Dr. Parkman's great annoyance, he learned that Dr. Webster had arranged to offer the very same mineral collection for private sale, threatening the security placed on his loan to Dr. Parkman. With feelings of considerable anxiety, he decided to meet with Webster to clarify the matter.
For a week, no one knew of Dr. Parkman's whereabouts. A $3,000 reward was offered for information that would lead to his discovery. Then, with Christmas approaching, the janitor of the medical college, Ephraim Littlefield, raised the alarm. Suspicious of Webster, Littlefield visited his laboratory. As he examined a stone wall in the laboratory, he made a shocking discovery -- putrefying human remains had been concealed beneath a latrine. Eventually a human thorax was recovered, together with a set of false teeth and several pieces of burned bone.
Dr. Webster was arrested and put on trial at the beginning of 1850. This is considered by many to be the first truly sensational trial in America, and it gained the attention of thousands of Bostonians, large numbers of whom would gather outside the courthouse in the hope of witnessing the proceedings first hand. The trial also attracted close media coverage, including the attention of foreign journalists.
The police called upon the assistance of physicians and dentists to aid in the identification of the recovered remains. Among them was Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, an anatomist. The results of the analysis indicated that the remains were compatible with Dr. Parkman's description, closely matching his age, height, and build. Dr. Webster was found guilty of Parkman's murder and was sentenced to hang.
Today, more than 150 years after the murder, many question the validity of the trial's outcome. In particular, the "expert" testimony of Dr. Wendell Holmes is regarded with considerable caution. This is because, at the time, the necessary statistical knowledge of the human skeleton required to make an accurate estimate of the age, sex, and individual characteristics of skeletal remains had not been developed sufficiently.
Dr. Parkman donated the land upon which the Harvard Medical School stands. Ironically, it was here that Dr. Dwight, known as the "Father of American Forensic Anthropology," would carry out his research on the human skeleton.
Meet the Author
Roxana Ferllini has worked for the UK Foreign Office as a Senior Forensic Anthropologist in their missions to Kosovo and for the United Nations as a Forensic Anthropologist in Rwanda. She has written extensively on facial reproduction, political conflict and genocide in Rwanda and the role of forensic anthropology in human rights issues. She has a Master of Arts in biological anthropology and is a respected teacher of forensic anthropology to doctors and judges. She also teaches at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.
Cyril H. Wecht is a forensic pathologist, attorney and medical-legal consultant certified by the American Board of Pathology. He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and the Duquesne University Schools of Law, Pharmacy, and Health Sciences. Dr. Wecht has performed approximately 17,000 autopsies and has supervised, reviewed or has been consulted on approximately 30,000
additional postmortem examinations.
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