The Role and Impact of Forensic Anthropology on Death Investigations

TheRole and Impact of Forensic Anthropology on Death Investigations

Forensicanthropology involves the application of the science of biological orphysical anthropology to the legal process. More specifically,forensic anthropologists apply the study of the human skeletal system(osteology) to provide answers to questions that have medico-legalimportance (İşcan,2005).Forensic anthropology is a crucial field in investigating mass andindividual deaths. Forensic anthropologists have special knowledgefor the excavation, and identification of human remains. From siteinvestigations to laboratory examination, anthropologists providecrucial clues in constructing events before and after the death ofpersons (İşcan,2005).

Useof Forensic Anthropology in Homicide Investigations

Forensicanthropology has been used in determining which homicides warrantwhat level of punishment according to the brutality of theperpetrators of the acts. Juries sentence offenders cases such asmurder based on the conviction that the actions of the perpetratorswere cruel, heinous or inherently atrocious (Cattaneo,2007).However, the use of the terms mentioned above is ambiguous whenapplied to crimes that are naturally extreme, in this case, homicidecases. There is, therefore, a justified need to determine thehomicide cases that distinguish themselves as depraved.

Withforensic anthropology, courts can use standardized terms in criminallaw to appraise depravity in a fair manner. In this regard, there ismore objectivity in cases of homicide through the provisions offorensic anthropology. Forensic anthropology leads to fairness forboth the perpetrators and the victims. This is especially importantconsidering that in capital cases crimes that exhibit &quotdepravity&quotcarry the death penalty (Cattaneo,2007).Therefore, before giving a death sentence, it is important toincorporate the contribution of forensic anthropology in determiningthe level of depravity. Anthropology, therefore, provides the courtswith evidence-based measures to appraise depravity, rather thanbasing their assessments on subjective terminologies.

Forensicanthropology is crucial in reconstructing deaths and thecircumstances surrounding the deaths. Forensic anthropologists canreconstruct and analyze skeletons, therefore providing vital clues inunresolved cases (, 2008).Combining objective forensic science analysis of circumstancesleading to death through the utilization of the depravity standard(DS) and the objective forensic anthropologicalreconstruction/analysis can provide actual scientific evidence tomeasure criminal depravity. Forensic anthropology, therefore, enablesthe consistent application of justice through refining bothqualitative and quantitative evidence. The standardizations haveprovided distinctions between crimes that warrant greater culpabilityas well as establishing barriers to the overcharging of criminalcases to satisfy political and other individual interests. This hasled to minimal abuse of the courts of justice for satisfyingindividual advancements (, 2008).

Useof Forensic Anthropology in the Recovery of Human Remains

Insome cases, there are scenes of crime in which the findings involvehuman remains. In such cases, forensic pathologists are called in totake charge of securing the crime scene as well as helping understandthe nature and perpetrators of crime. However, in these scenarios,the nature of the crime scene may demand individuals with the righttraining to recover and retrieve human remains without damaging them.Pathologists lack this kind of training therefore, forensicanthropologists take charge of such delicate operations (, 2008).

Thereis an obvious need for interdisciplinary cooperation between forensicpathologists and forensic anthropologists during the process ofrecovering buried victims. Physical anthropologists provideimmeasurable assistance when dealing with skeletonized or partlyskeletonized remains. Forensic anthropology, therefore, prevents theloss of information through mishandling. Retrieval, as well asregistration of human remains without following the appropriateanthropological methodology, will certainly lead to loss ofinformation (Byers,2015).

Well-trainedforensic anthropologists can perform species determination on remainsin crime scenes to determine whether they are human or animal.Additionally, they can help indicate the most useful lab tests tohelp solve the cases. Forensic anthropology is critical indetermining sex, age, race, pathologies, height and other anomaliesand hence creates a biological profile to assist in theinvestigations. By identifying the species i.e. whether human oranimal, pathologists and anthropologists can bring cases to quickclosures in cases where remains are found to be non-human (, 2008).

Useof Forensic Anthropology in Investigating Mass Graves and War Crimes

Forensicanthropologists provide immeasurable assistance in human rights abuseinvestigations. For example, forensic anthropologists provideknowledge and expertise in the excavation of mass graves. Theirknowledge is irreplaceable in such times, considering thatpathologists may not be able to oversee such rigorous excavationsespecially in cases of damaged human remains. Firstly, forensicanthropologists oversee the identification process of the victims.They also assist forensic pathologists in determining the cause ofdeath and torture methods unleashed on the victims.

Theparticipation of forensic anthropologists in investigating humanrights violations in particular between 1990 and 1999 iswell-documented (İşcan,2005).Examples include the UN-sponsored International Criminal Tribunal forthe former Yugoslavia where about 100 anthropologists investigatedabout 3000 sites. The other anthropologists include the GuatemalaForensic Anthropology Foundation. Forensic archaeologists played asignificant role in solving genocide cases in Rwanda, Argentina, andBosnia (Cattaneo,2007).They provided documentation on the nature of the genocide that tookplace in the countries in conflict as well as quantify the number ofdeaths in the respective conflict zones. Forensic anthropologistshave therefore been able to assist international courts and thevictims` families in understanding what took place and eventuallybringing the perpetrators justice.

Presenceof Diseases and Pathological Anomalies during the Lives of Victims

Itis important to determine whether victims suffered from any diseasesbefore their death. This will help avoid making the wrong conclusionregarding the cause of death, or giving wrong explanations on theanomalies that may exist in the morphological structure (, 1998).Forensic anthropologists help determine whether individuals sufferedfrom any ailments that might explain the anomalies presented in theskeletal structure. This may help rule out certain causes of deathhence providing a new ground for investigation.

Understandingthe presence of any diseases before the death of an individualprovides an important image of the person`s condition before death.For example, a person with chronic conditions may possess certainskeletal characteristics before death. The presence of pathologicalconditions before the death of an individual can be a key factor inidentifying a person. For example, anthropologists may look for thepresence of previous fractures, prior surgery, and surgical hardware,evidence of dental carries and evidence of prior diseases to helpidentify a person (, 1998).

InNovember 2009, a forensic anthropologist working for the New JerseyState Police testified against John Pomper, who was accused ofkilling his brother James Ridgeways. The anthropologists specifiedthat she did not discover any immediate signs of trauma on thevictim`s body after exhumation. She looked at Ridgeway`s hyoid bonethat appeared to have been untouched during the first autopsy. Shetestified that after a keen observation, she noticed, &quotone ofthe horns was fractured and splintered.&quot A piece of the boneappeared to be missing. The anthropologist gave the opinion that thebone was not significantly fractured before death since there was nosign of healing. She also said that the fracture did not happenduring the exhumation process. The cause of Ridgeway`s death had beeninitially declared as inconclusive. However, the anthropologisthelped in explaining the cause of Ridgeway`s death by observing theskull. She concluded that the cause of death was strangling. However,in the attorney general`s cross-examination, he appeared to suggestthat the exhumation process could have been compromised since it wasraining at the time of the exhumation therefore, there could be achance that the bone was carried by water. The anthropologist,however, provided an important viewpoint in the direction of theinvestigations (Byers,2015).

Signsof injury may not only indicate the manner/cause of death but alsoprovide insight into the manner of treatment of the body around thetime of death as well as disposal. The manner in which a body ishandled after death may provide important clues about theperpetrators of crime (İşcan,2005).Anthropologists may study human remains to determine the means oftransportation as well as any chemical components used in thedisposal of the body. Forensic anthropology, therefore, helps answerquestions about the events before and after the death of anindividual. It is critical to differentiate between skeletalanomalies/damage that occurs before the death and after the death ofa person. Knowing the difference helps reduce cases of wrongfulconvictions after making the wrong conclusions about what happenedduring a murder (Byers,2015).

IdentifyingLiving Persons

Forensicanthropology has gone beyond the identification of human remains tothe identification of living persons. In many cases, authorities comeacross two-dimensional images in robberies, assaults, and murdersfrom video surveillance systems. When two-dimensional images are theonly aspects that identify the perpetrators of crime, authoritiesturn to forensic anthropologists for help. This is another aspect offorensic anthropology that deals with human diversity, striving toverify metric and morphological characteristics. Forensicanthropologists help to determine the morphological characteristicsthat make an individual distinct from another (, 2008).

Incases of mass disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods,forensic anthropology plays a key role in the identification ofindividuals as well as determining the number of people presentwithin a specific location. After mass disasters, accounting forvictims is the most important activity as families, and friends wantto know the fate of their victims. Forensic anthropologists candetermine the minimum number of individuals (MNI) present in aparticular area. Knowing the number of individuals presentcontributes to the accountability process (Byers,2015).Anthropologists determine the minimum number of individuals in avariety of ways, the most common being the duplication of bonyelements. Even in the absence of duplicated elements, investigatorscannot assume that only one person is present at the site of thecrime. Forensic anthropologists look for any inconsistencies in thebiological profile of human remains (i.e. sex, stature, and age),texture, lack of concurrence between adjoining elements and color,which may be indications of the presence of additional individuals ina crime scene (Byers,2015).

Anexample of a mass disaster is the September 11 attack on the WorldTrade Centre and the Pentagon in the United States. The reportedcasualties were about 2996 and 19 hijackers. Just a few weeks afterthe attack, the death toll rose to about 6000 people. However, only1600 persons were identified. Forensic anthropologists collected over1000 unidentified tissue fragments and bones. In 2006, workersplanning to rebuild Deutsche Bank found more bone fragments. In 2010,a team of archaeologists and anthropologists found 72 more bones.Forensic anthropologists are still carrying out the identificationprocess. In 2014, the anthropologists had identified about 1640persons (Byers,2015).Such cases of mass disasters have proven the importance of forensicanthropologists. They help end cases as well as give peace of mind tothe families and friends of the victims.

Forensicanthropology helps determine the time after death. In this way,investigators can determine precisely when a crime was committed, andplace perpetrators at the scene of the crime. Knowing the post-mortemprovides investigators with a timeline to focus on. Therefore, thishelps avoid time wastage by not focusing on timeframes that are notrelated to the death of an individual (, 2008).Another important role of the forensic anthropologist isindividualization anthropologists reconstruct the precise identityof the person whose remains are found.

Incertain circumstances, remains are located and removed from theirinitial location before any conclusive investigations can be carriedout. In such cases, site visits by forensic anthropologists may behelpful in interpreting post-mortem activity. Additionally, they maygive their views and recommendations regarding future searches forany missing remains. This is important especially in cases wheremurder suspects attempt to move human remains to avoid detection(İşcan,2005).Additionally, there are instances where workers may come across crimescenes accidentally during excavation. In such cases, forensicanthropologists have offered unmatched help in reconstructing thecrime scenes as well as identifying the victims and the time ofdeath.

TheForensic Case Report and the Court Testimony

Aftercompleting the skeletal analysis, forensic anthropologists have afurther role to play regarding the presentation of the findings. Theforensic anthropologists submit their results in case reports to theconsulting agency. In most cases, the anthropologists submit theirfindings to the Medical Examiner`s office (İşcan,2005).In their reports, forensic anthropologists include the followingelements:

  1. An inventory of items recovered and analyzed, including an assessment of MNI

  2. A summary of the biological profile of the individual i.e. age, ancestry, sex, decedent, and race,

  3. An estimated time of the death of the person

Incourt cases, forensic anthropologists may be required to testifywithin their expertise. They may not offer opinions for exampleregarding soft tissue damage and other causes of death. By providinginsights into the cause of death in court cases, forensicanthropologists have helped countless juries come up with fairconvictions for both the victims and the perpetrators of cases suchas homicide (İşcan,2005).


Therole of forensic anthropology is immeasurable. Forensic anthropologyprovides factual scientific viewpoints that help investigators andjuries to make fair determinations regarding committed atrocities.The combination of forensic anthropology and forensic pathologyresults to the most objective investigations and conclusion on deathcases. Forensic anthropologists have impacted heavily in addressinghuman rights abuses especially in countries that have experiencedlong periods of fighting. Their role will continue to remain criticalin solving murder cases as well as addressing human rightsviolations.


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