Law Enforcement, Attorneys, and Other Professionals

In what types of matters are forensic anthropologists consulted?

Why should coroners/medical examiners, law enforcement, and/or attorneys use an ABFA board-certified forensic anthropologist?

Should law enforcement use a forensic anthropologist at the scene or just take the bones to one?

Can forensic anthropologists provide second opinions?  If so, can they work from old case files and/or photographs?

What can a forensic anthropologist say about cremated remains?

Do most forensic anthropologists do facial reproductions?

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, which can include:
    • Proper removal of associated soft tissues as necessary to analyze bones
    • Assessing the victim’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
    • Trauma analysis, including gunshot wounds, blunt trauma, sharp injury, and assessing the relative timing of trauma as:
      • Antemortem – before death
      • Perimortem – at or around the time of death
      • Postmortem – after death (which also includes differentiating any environmental damage, such as carnivore activity or erosion, from other types of bony changes)
    • Evaluating taphonomy (environmental change)
      • Determining the factors that cause changes in bone during the postmortem interval
      • Estimating time since death by calculating the time it would take the body to reach its state of decomposition, given the geographic environment and temperatures
    • Some forensic anthropologists can also:
      • Assist with the personal identification of remains by photographic superimposition, in which photographs of the living person are compared to the skull, or through radiographic comparison
      • Assist with personal identification of remains by facial approximation with clay, sketching, or computer reconstruction
      • Assist with establishing identification by comparing antemortem and postmortem radiographs

Why should coroners/medical examiners, law enforcement, and/or 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, both of which have to be completed within a single eight-hour period.  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).  Each Diplomate is assigned a unique certification number.  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 tends to lend credibility to 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 recover the remains, though this is not practical in all cases.  Personally recovering the remains allows the forensic anthropologist to see the environment and process the scene using forensic archaeological methods.  This allows the anthropologist to maximize collection of all relevant evidence at the scene and to document the context of the remains, such as the relationship of items at the scene to each other and to the remains.  The examination for board certification addresses many aspects of searches, skeletal recovery, and other aspects of fieldwork, so ABFA-certified anthropologists are qualified to document and remove remains from a scene for examination.  Minimally, law enforcement should consult with a forensic anthropologist as soon as bones are discovered, since the anthropologist can give guidance as to how to proceed if he or she cannot come to the scene.

Can forensic anthropologists provide second opinions?  If so, can they work from old case files and/or photographs?

Many forensic anthropologists can and do provide second opinions—including of each other’s work.  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.

What can a forensic anthropologist say about cremated remains?

A great deal potentially can be learned from burned or cremated remains, including age, sex, ancestry, the presence of gunshot wounds, and other information.  However, if the remains have been mechanically pulverized (such as is common during commercial cremation), then typically, less information can be gleaned from them.

Do most forensic anthropologists do facial reproductions?

Very few board certified forensic anthropologists perform facial approximations or reproductions.  There are some highly-qualified forensic artists who do these reproductions, and forensic anthropologists can be a good source for finding a competent forensic artist.