Photography changes the practice of forensic anthropology

Doug Ubelaker

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Doug Ubelaker [ BIO ]

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Doug Ubelaker

Doug Ubelaker, curator and senior scientist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, has published extensively in the general field of human skeletal biology with an emphasis on forensic applications. Currently he serves as president-elect of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

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Doug Ubelaker, curator and senior scientist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, explains how photography has transformed forensics.

Throughout the recent history of forensic anthropology, photography has played a pivotal role in key developments in the field. Photographic images have become indispensible in procedures of documentation, special techniques that contribute to the identification of human remains, presentations in legal proceedings and, most recently, in the sharing of digital images for purposes of consultation.

Although the documentation of evidence has always been central to the practice of forensic anthropology, photography’s value in that process has been heightened in recent years with rising concerns about quality control in laboratories, the security of evidence, and the fact that great lengths of time, often years, elapse between the initial recovery of evidence and presentations of interpretations of that evidence in court. From recording crime scene details to evidence analysis and interpretation, photographs are frequently made and relied upon for various types of information. At every stage of the investigative process, they record the nature of the evidence collected and provide a record of the procedures that were employed in its analysis.

Specialized techniques of photography have made novel and major contributions to various aspects of forensic anthropology. Aerial photography has proven useful in recovery efforts involving the location of clandestine burials. Photographs are essential to the process of facial approximation, which involves the production of a facial image of a deceased person, based upon data collected from a recovered skull. Photographic superimposition employs yet another imaging technique in which photographs of a once living person are superimposed over recovered remains in order to assess morphological relationships that might contribute to a positive identification.

Photographs also play significant roles in the presentation of evidence during legal proceedings in two major ways. At times, the actual physical evidence in a case is not allowed in the courtroom, the rationale being that showing a jury the remains of a victim would be unnecessarily inflammatory. Photographs of key evidence are, instead, displayed in an effort to support testimony and better inform juries. Graphic aids displayed in court often incorporate photographic evidence to demonstrate the specific anatomical relationships and patterns that evidence reveals. In these cases, images enable jurors to actually see evidence and better understand issues being discussed, helping them to make more informed decisions.

The images you see here, for example, were utilized in two jury trials relating to forensic cases. In each trial, juries heard verbal testimony regarding evidence of foul play. But with the presentation of these photographs and others like them, jurors had the opportunity to examine detailed evidence of the criminal acts that were under discussion. The first and second images illustrate cut marks found on the third cervical vertebra from the neck region of an adult victim. The nature of the cuts—specifically the lack of remodeling (healing) and the coloration pattern—suggest that they were made perimortem (at or about the time of death) rather than long before death (antemortem) or after death (postmortem). Three areas of cuts are visible in the first image (which shows a section of the third cervical vertebra). A microscopic detail of one of those areas, seen in the second image, reveals multiple cuts concentrated at this site. Both images were critical in demonstrating that multiple cuts were present. The third image, which presents evidence from another trial, shows that a tire iron—recovered by on-the-scene investigators and showing class characteristics consistent with details of the fracture—may have been the instrument used to produce a pattern fracture on a victim’s cranium.

As digital photographic images become widespread, the sharing of visual information is rising dramatically. Today, forensic images move rapidly around the world and facilitate consultation and the discussion of evidence. Now, when forensic anthropologists check their morning email, they routinely find images of evidence waiting for their opinions, which suggests that photography will continue to play a key role in forensic anthropology as photographic technique evolves and as the field itself progresses.

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This image illustrates cut marks on a third cervical vertebra of an adult victim.
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This microscopic image illustrates cut marks on a third cervical vertebra of an adult victim.
  • This microscopic image illustrates cut marks on a third cervical vertebra of an adult victim.
  • Read image description
This image presents evidence that a tire iron may have been the instrument used to produce a pattern fracture on a cranium.
  • This image presents evidence that a tire iron may have been the instrument used to produce a pattern fracture on a cranium.
  • Read image description

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