Posts Tagged ‘forensic anthropology’

Yesterday, I wrote about the November 13 article in the New York Times that described how police had turned to sophisticated science involving isotope analysis to determine the geographic origin of corpses.  The article focused on the case of a Jane Doe in a 41-year-old murder case in Florida.  The science is fascinating; it allows the authorities to pinpoint where the victim came from with startling precision.  The Jane Doe in Florida, who had been thought to be a white or Native American woman from North America, grew up in Greece and had probably been in the U.S. for less than a year.

Why, I asked, had law enforcement so heartily embraced the science that could do this work,  even as most of law enforcement continues to ignore or resist more basic science on traditional methods of investigation, like eyewitness identification, interrogation of suspects, and old-school forensics?  Here are a few possible reasons:

1) In the Jane Doe case and the others discussed, there was no real alternative.  The cases were old, and most ways of investigating that could be tried had been tried, with no results.

2) The colder a serious case gets,the more likely that police will be open to trying new or untested approaches.

3) The type of science used — hard science, chemical analysis, very traditional sorts of science work — is appealing, in a way that the sorter science challenging eyewitness identification, for instance, is not.

4) The science described in the article does not challenge what police already do and believe in.  Therefore, it does not disrupt the status quo or challenge existing ideas about police expertise, while science about eyewitness identification, interrogation and traditional forensics challenges those things very directly.

My gut is that answers 1) and 4) probably do the most to explain what we see here.  What do you think?


The main point of my book Failed Evidence is to explain the real reasons that law enforcement resists science, and with that understanding to enable us to break through that resistance in order tohave better police work that reflects the best scientific  knowledge that we have.

So what a relief to find an example of law enforcement embracing science in a big way.

In the November 13 New York Times, “Jane Doe Gets a Back Story” tells how police have been aided by science in some very cold cases.  They have turned to isotope analysis to pinpoint the geographic origin of some unidentified human remains, and scientists have been able to do this with almost uncanny precision.  In other words, the scientists have not been able to identify the corpses, but they have pinned down where they came from, which might then lead to an identification.  The case featured in the article involved the frozen body of a woman found floating in a lake under a highway overpass northeast of Tampa, Florida, forty-one years ago.  The best guess was that the woman was white or Native American, and 17 to 24 years old.  Police got nowhere with this scant information.

Fast forward to this year, when scientists used shavings of tooth enamel and bones to come up with some “startling” findings:

The best evidence suggested that she grew up in Greece and came to the United States less than a year before she was killed. (Tarpon Springs, north of Tampa, has a large Greek-American population.) The research, according to Detective [Darren] “turned the case upside down.” Based on the findings, he provided information for an article that was published Oct. 11 in The National Herald, an international Greek-language newspaper. It was accompanied by the new reconstructed image of the victim and her clothing.

The case is still not closed. The woman’s identity has not been determined, and Detective Norris acknowledges that it is still a long shot. But he is confident that he is on the right track. “The best lead that has ever come in this case came because of the science,” he said…

What’s fascinating to me is the strong embrace of this scientific work by the police.  Because as readers of Failed Evidence know, that is not a given.  So what accounts for that embrace, while science on far more basic and common law enforcement methods like eyewitness testimony, interrogation of suspects, and basic forensics gets rejected?