Common Law Enforcement Questions
In what types of matters are forensic anthropologists consulted?
-Locating clandestine graves or remains on the ground’s surface (including fire scenes)
-Recovering remains and associated evidence from outdoor (as well as indoor) scenes
-Identifying whether bones (fragmentary or complete) are human or nonhuman
-Sorting commingled remains
-Assisting with the personal identification of human remains, whether they are fresh, decomposed, burned, mummified, complete or fragmentary
-Removing associated soft tissues as necessary to analyze bones
-Assessing the decedent’s age, sex, ancestry, and stature, depending on condition and degree of completeness of the remains
-Identifying pathological conditions that affect the skeleton
-Performing radiographic comparisons to assist with positive identification
- Identifying and analyzing trauma, including projectile, blunt, sharp, and blast injuries, and assessing relative timing
-Evaluating taphonomic (postmortem) changes in bone
-Estimating time since death
Some forensic anthropologists can use specialized techniques (e.g., stable isotope analysis, photographic superimposition, and facial approximations) to aid in identification of decedents.
Why should coroners/medical examiners, law enforcement, and attorneys use an ABFA board-certified forensic anthropologist?
A license is not required to practice forensic anthropology, and the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA) is not a licensing board. However, the ABFA certification process involves a rigorous evaluation of the education, training, and experience of an applicant before the applicant can sit for the board exam. If the applicant meets the requirements of the board, he or she is allowed to sit for the two-part exam. The exam consists of a lengthy set of multiple-choice questions, followed by an extensive hands-on practical examination. If the person passes the examination, he or she is granted certification by the ABFA and is known as a Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (D-ABFA). A Diplomate must sign a statement of ethics each year; additionally, each must be able to document a record of ongoing continuing education in the field every three years.
While other individuals may meet some or all of these requirements, the process and achievement of ABFA certification ensures that practitioners have demonstrated a high level of ability and skill. Moreover, certification promotes professional credibility for case reports and court testimony.
Should law enforcement use a forensic anthropologist at the scene or just take the bones to one?
Most forensic anthropologists prefer to visit the scene and assist in the recovery of the remains, though this may not be practical in all cases. This allows the forensic anthropologist to see the environment and process the scene using forensic archaeological methods. This allows the anthropologist to maximize the collection of all of the remains and relevant evidence at the scene and to document the context and the relationship of the remains with any associated evidence. The board certification examination addresses many aspects of the search for and recovery of remains, so ABFA-certified anthropologists are qualified to document and remove remains from a scene for examination. Minimally, a forensic anthropologist should be consulted to provide guidance as to how to proceed if they cannot come to the scene.
What can a forensic anthropologist say about cremated remains?
A great deal can potentially be learned from burned and fragmentary or cremated remains, including the individual’s age-at-death, biological sex, ancestry, the presence of trauma, and other information. This information can potentially be very valuable for identification purposes, as it can be extremely difficult to obtain DNA from burned or cremated remains.
Do most forensic anthropologists do facial reproductions?
Very few forensic anthropologists perform facial approximations or reconstructions. There are some highly-qualified forensic artists who do these reproductions, and forensic anthropologists can be a good resource for finding a competent forensic artist.
What is involved in a typical forensic anthropology case, and what can forensic anthropologists conclude from examining a skeleton?
Forensic anthropologists are commonly consulted to determine whether remains are human or nonhuman (i.e., bones of other animals). In many cases, this can be assessed via photographs with a scale. Remains determined to be human are then assessed in the lab to evaluate if they are of modern medicolegal significance. In some states, historic and prehistoric remains are handled by the state bioarchaeologist instead of the forensic anthropologist.
In cases where the identity of the decedent is unknown, the forensic anthropologist can develop a biological profile from the remains. This involves estimating the approximate age-at-death of the individual, the individual’s biological sex (male or female), and the person’s height at the time of death. Anthropologists may also be able to estimate the ancestry, or population affinity, of the decedent. To estimate these parameters, measurements of the skeleton are taken, and the overall shape and characteristics of particular skeletal features are evaluated; validated methods are then applied. Since the results are only estimates, probability of group classification (e.g., age-at-death, biological sex, ancestry/population affinity) or statistical ranges are provided with the estimates. These estimated biological parameters are usually intended to aid medicolegal practitioners by narrowing down the pool of possible missing persons in an effort to make an identification.
Once one or more possible missing persons are suggested, more specific forensic anthropological analyses can be performed to establish an identification. Forensic anthropologists use comparative radiography as an identification technique. Antemortem (living) and postmortem (deceased) radiographs (x-rays) of almost any skeletal region may be compared, and points of concordance (radiographic features that match) are used to make an identification. Radiographs of dentition and cranial sinuses are commonly used in this method. Surgical implants, healed fractures, dental restorations and charts, bony signs of disease and unusual skeletal features described by the forensic anthropologist can also contribute to an identification.
A forensic anthropologist can also provide evidence regarding the circumstances surrounding death. Forensic anthropologists look for signs of skeletal disease and trauma, including features that characterize a gunshot wound, blunt-force trauma, sharp-force injury, thermal injury, and blast trauma. Additional information, such as the minimum number of impacts, trajectory of impacts, and in some cases, the sequence of impacts can sometimes be determined. The timing of the trauma to the bone (i.e., whether it occurred before death or relatively close to the time of death) can also be determined by looking for signs of healing and assessing bone fracture patterns. This can be particularly useful in cases of possible child or elder abuse.
A forensic anthropologist is trained to differentiate skeletal trauma from taphonomic damage that occurs after death. Taphonomy refers to any post-depositional (i.e., postmortem) processes, such as animal scavenging, weathering, sun bleaching and soil staining. Taphonomic observations, especially in conjunction with scene information, can help explain the distribution of remains, position of the body, and whether the body decomposed at that site. Methods also exist to estimate the postmortem interval based on the level of decomposition and weather; however, most estimates are fairly broad given the large number of factors that can influence decompositional rates.
Casework is not limited to skeletonized remains; forensic anthropologists also assist with burned remains, bodies in various states of decomposition, dismemberments, and suspected abuse cases (amongst others). In some cases, bones may be recovered from a fresh body during an autopsy for anthropological analysis.
Often a forensic anthropologist is presented with remains for analysis, but sometimes a forensic anthropologist is contacted by law enforcement to search for and recover remains that are scattered on the ground or buried in a clandestine grave (or multiple bodies in a mass grave). Forensic anthropologists are trained to use various environmental clues in the search for remains. Forensic anthropologists use modified archaeological techniques to document and recover remains and associated evidence, preserving as much information from the scene as possible. This contextual information can assist in medicolegal investigations, at times providing information about the circumstances of the death and any post-depositional processes. Outside of their medicolegal work, many forensic anthropologists have also participated in historic projects such as moving old cemeteries or examining the skeletal remains of historic “celebrities” to establish their authenticity or help determine how they died.
Which bones provide the most information?
Both the skull and pelvis provide a considerable amount of information about an individual. The skull (which is actually made of numerous bones) can potentially provide information regarding biological sex (in adults), age-at-death, ancestry or population affinity, and the dentition or teeth. The adult pelvic bones provide more reliable estimates of biological sex and age-at-death than the skull. The long bones (e.g., femur or thigh bone) provide the best estimates of stature. The more skeletal elements a forensic anthropologist has to assess, the greater the accuracy in estimating the biological profile and interpreting trauma and taphonomy. Yet, even when dealing with few and fragmentary remains, forensic anthropologists are often able to draw conclusions that inform a death investigation. Indeed, the most important element could even be a single rib fragment, if it displays evidence of a gunshot wound or a cut from a knife.
Are there any human bones that are difficult to distinguish from the bones of other animals?
Most bones are readily distinguishable between humans and nonhumans for a person who is trained in looking at the overall morphology (shape and size) of the bones. Certain bones of a bear, especially those of the paws, appear more similar to humans and are commonly mistaken for human bones by untrained individuals. Bone fragments may be more difficult to differentiate because many of the morphological (shape- or feature-based) characteristics can be missing. Still, forensic anthropologists are highly trained in the examination of fragmentary remains, so it’s useful to operate under the assumption that for a forensic anthropologist, no bone fragment is “too small” to analyze. Some anthropologists may even be able to look at the microscopic structure of the bone in cases of extreme fragmentation or take samples for DNA testing.
Can forensic anthropologists provide second opinions? If so, can they work from old case files and/or photographs?
Many forensic anthropologists provide second opinions. Particularly in criminal or civil matters, impartiality requires that both sides of a case have the benefit of good science. Working a cold case or one that requires a second opinion is possible from old case files and photographs; however, the success in such matters largely depends upon the quality of the information provided.