Materials forensic anthropologists and the police treat as evidence within their investigative work

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Forensic science is science used for the purpose of the law, and thus any branch of science used in the resolution of legal disputes falls under the mantle of forensic science (Genge, 2003). This broad definition covers criminal prosecutions in the widest sense, including consumer and environmental protection and health and safety at work, as well as civil proceedings such as breach of contract and negligence.

A police officer investigating an incident will seek clarification of three issues: whether a crime has been committed; who the responsible parties are; and whether there is enough evidence to charge the responsible person and proceed to a successful prosecution (Fisher, 1992; Osterburg and Ward, 2000). This clarification is seldom the isolated responsibility of one officer, and any consequential trial will require the involvement of the specialist police officers and civilian staff. Forensic science, and the evidence it can interpret, can be expected to make a contribution to the clarification of all three issues.

Forensic evidence is present everywhere, but usually it is of little or no importance. However, at the scene of a crime the presence of forensic evidence can lead law enforcement to the offender, and often plays a crucial role in the prosecution and defence of the defendant. The types of materials considered to be of evidential value to the police and the forensic services are copious: this essay will address the predominant forms of material evidence of interest to forensic anthropologists and police officers, however, it is by no means exhaustive.

Importance of evidence

Forensic evidence can be essential for criminal investigations, and the successful resolution and prosecution with regard to a variety of crimes. Its usefulness derives from a concept known as Locard's Principle of Two-way Transfer. To Edmund Locard is attributed an essential basic tenet of forensic science, this in essence being that 'every contact leaves a trace' (Cobb, 1998; Jackson and Jackson, 2004). This dogma states that for every contact between materials, regardless of their source, there exists a transference of substance between each contact: for example, clothing brushing past an item of furniture results in fibres from the garment attaching themselves to the furniture, and, conversely, fibres from the furniture transferring to the clothing. From the presence, nature and abundance of this trace, scientists can determine many aspects of the individual who deposited the material, and trace analysis can result in the successful detection of a crime and the prosecution of the offender.

General types of evidence

A commonly used source of forensic evidence is fingerprints. No two fingerprints are identical, regardless of the genetic relationship between individuals; a result of their random production in utero (Platt, 2003). Not only is each fingerprint unique, but, trauma not withstanding, a fingerprint does not alter in morphology from its creation to the death of the individual. Disfiguration may occur, via scarring, however this is effortlessly identifiable during the analysis of a fingerprint. To establish a correlation between a latent fingerprint at a scene of crime and an inked fingerprint taken directly from a suspect, sixteen ridge characteristics must be positively identified (Gallop and Stockdale, 1998). Though not technically within the analytical remit of the forensic anthropologist, fingerprints are a vital source of evidence for the police, and trained anthropologists are fully aware of their significance when conducting an investigation. This recognition results in the integrity of the crime scene and its evidence remaining intact during the recovery process.

Weaponry is an essential source of evidence for a plethora of crimes, from robbery to murder. Different weapons leave different trace evidence, and such evidence may be obtained at the scene of the homicide, in the possession of the accused, or during a post-mortem. Trauma patterns observed in the flesh, muscles and hard tissue of the victim may be analysed, and may assist the pathologist and anthropologist in determining the type of weapon used (Hunter, 1996). Discarded bullets and the weapon itself may be found at any number of scenes, including that of the body, and can offer an abundance of identifying evidence to the police. Strangulation may be indicated by the presence of bruising around the neck or the presence of a fractured hyoid bone, and both are easily identified by a trained anthropologist. Trauma from weapons may also indicate the height of the offender, from the angle and positioning of the wound, and the dexterity of the assailant whether the offender is right- or left-handed (Dean et al., 2005). The location of the injuries may also indicate the progression of events, particularly if defensive injuries, such as lacerations to the forearms and hands, are evident.
Much of the evidence from a scene of crime is not included in the forensic anthropologist's area of specialism. Pollen analysis, for example, though recognised and often understood by the anthropologist, requires a specialist palynologist's recovery and analysis (Weston, 1998). Similarly, entomological evidence, which can be crucial to the determination of location of death and post-mortem interval (PMI), usually requires the presence of a forensic entomologist during the investigative process, although in recent years more anthropologists are obtaining entomological training and qualifications (Galloway et al., 2001). Entomological evidence can offer a plethora of information to the investigating officers, from conditions and climate during burial, to movement of the body, to the date of death.

Evidence for anthropologists

Forensic anthropologists, in particular, are predominantly concerned with human remains, including those with soft tissue. Following a biological profile, determining age at death, sex, race and stature of the victim, the forensic anthropologist will endeavour to provide a personal identification of the remains based of evidence of dental treatment, previous injuries and any distinguishing characteristics the individual may display (Hunter, 1996). It is therefore self-explanatory that the forensic anthropologist is primarily concerned with the comprehensive recovery and examination of hard and soft tissue from the victim, and, in conjunction with the pathologist, can analyse pathologies, cause of death and identity of the remains. In addition, the anthropologist may be concerned with the recovery of fragile DNA evidence, often only obtainable from the dentition following careful recovery of the remains (Lewis and Rutty, 2003).

However, an area of specialism the forensic anthropologist also possesses, and which is unobtainable to the pathologist, is an understanding of taphonomy, soil matrices and deposits. The anthropologist is trained in archaeological excavation and can interpret the taphonomy of a site to assist in the determination of natural versus human activity, such as post-interment movement of the remains (Haglund and Sorg, 1996 and 2001; Duhig, 2003). With an understanding of taphonomical and pedological processes, the forensic anthropologist can be essential in the location of clandestine graves, and they can successfully recover deposit samples for analysis by a geologist or pedologist.
Similarly, though within the field of expertise of the entomologist, as mentioned previously, many forensic anthropologists are trained and qualified in the successful recovery and sampling of entomological evidence, and therefore the anthropologist will pay particular attention to the recovery of such evidence prior to the removal of the remains (Hunter, 1995).

The forensic anthropologist is only responsible for the recovery and analysis of a small amount of evidence relating to a crime, and is predominantly concerned with the evaluation of human remains. However, due to their physical proximity to the victim throughout the investigation, it is essential that the anthropologist possess at least a rudimentary understanding of a wide range of specialisms which may be required during the case. Without a recognition of the importance of DNA to a modern criminal investigation, for example, the integrity of this delicate and highly significant source of evidence may be unwittingly compromised by the forensic anthropologist.

Forensic evidence is invaluable to the criminal justice system providing data which can lead to the successful prosecution of an offender, or the successful release of an innocent party. A plethora of information relating to a crime can be recovered and analysed by the anthropologist, and subsequently interpreted by the police force, and, in the case of serious (major) crime, may determine the methodology used by the offender, the date and location of the crime, and the identity of both the offender and the victim (Ubelaker and Scammell, 2000).


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