For Prosecutors and Criminal Defense Attorneys

 

Mistakes made during the recovery of human skeletal remains can jeopardize a case before the remains ever leave the scene. This can present problems for the prosecutor as well as opportunities for the criminal defense attorney.

Crime scene investigators are rarely called on to recover human skeletal remains. As a result, long-unused skills become rusty, mistakes are made, and the case is compromised almost immediately. However, a forensic anthropologist has extensive training in the recovery of human skeletal remains and should make the recovery whenever possible.

Dr. Snow recently served as an expert witness for a criminal defense attorney in a case in which two individuals were murdered and burned for several days in an outdoor fire pit. Dr. Snow discovered that law enforcement had excavated the fire pit using garden rakes and shovels, undoubtedly fragmenting the already-fragile skeletal remains. The screen size used to sift the contents of the fire pit was too large, allowing small bones and teeth to pass through the screen. Dr. Snow also noted that no photographs were made of the excavation or of evidence recovered before being moved, and no grid was established. Finally, a metal detector was not used, which may have allowed investigators to recover bullets used in the homicides. Each of these mistakes violated established archaeological principles and figured prominently in the trial.

Some years ago, law enforcement recovered skeletal remains in a wooded area near where an individual went missing two years previously. Dr. Snow’s anthropological examination revealed that many of the teeth were absent postmortem. Without them, the forensic odontologist could not make a positive identification. Dr. Snow returned to the scene and shortly thereafter found not only the teeth that confirmed the identification but also the bullet that killed this individual.  

By reviewing documentation and photos of the recovery, Dr. Snow can often determine if mistakes were made. If the mistakes are not serious, this can usually mitigate damage to the prosecutor’s case. Conversely, if the mistakes are serious this can strengthen the defense attorney’s case.