Forensic scientist has bone to pick with public image
Professor Sue Black’s keynote speech at the national FORREST (Forensic Research and Teaching) conference at Abertay University, Dundee, on Tuesday is entitled, “Picking the bones out of forensic anthropology”. The conference is aimed at promoting and developing links between higher education and forensic science research.
She will tell delegates that the specialists often get involved too late. “We aren’t just a second thought but sometimes the eighth, ninth or tenth thought. The [popular] image is that we are asked in when somebody finds an ancient skeleton somewhere and wants us to find out if it’s a centuries-old murder. But that is a small percentage of our workload.”
Director of Dundee University Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, Professor Black may bear some responsibility for the image through her television work on re-opening cold cases where the eye witnesses have been deceased for centuries. But the department has never been busier with current investigations.
“We are deployed at disaster scenes where there are body parts. Somebody has to be able to identify whether something is human or not, and what part of the body. These can be essential parts of the jigsaw. We have teams on standby in case of a terrorist incident at the Olympics. God forbid that should be needed, but somebody has to think ahead about these things.”
Human identification can also assist in establishing the age of living subjects. “We have worked in cases where young people have entered the country as children but without any documentation. If they get in trouble with the law it is important to determine their age for the correct prosecution and sentencing decision.”
The department is also frequently involved in making identification from body parts unintentionally captured in child pornography images.
“What I want to do is pick away at the old view of forensic anthropology,” says Professor Black. “We need to get perception of the discipline out of the dark ages.”
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