Museum of Earth Sciences lecture features forensic anthropology's role in crime solving


Donna and Cliff Boyd, co-directors of the Radford University Forensic Science Institute

For a grisly, but gripping, look at the science of forensic anthropology, Donna Boyd, eminent professor of anthropology and co-director of the Radford University Forensic Science Institute (RUFSI), shared insights from more than 150 RUFSI cases and consultations.

"We work with physics, geology, archaeology and criminal justice, so

it is a very interdisciplinary field," she said. "We apply science to address medico-legal questions."

Titled "Inside the RUFSI: Serving the Commonwealth through forensic science, casework, research and education," the lecture was the second in the Spring Museum of Earth Sciences Lecture Series.

Donna and Cliff Boyd, professor of archeology, are co-directors of the 15-year-old RUFSI that is housed in Preston Hall and will have special facilities in the soon-to-be completed Center for the Sciences.  As one of only 70 certified Diplomats of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, Boyd also works in the Western Regional Office of the Virginia Chief Medical Examiner which is responsible for determining the cause and manner of deaths in 22 counties west of Roanoke.

Immediately, she drew a comparison between herself and Temperance Brennan, the main character in Bones, a popular forensic crime television drama.

"I don't carry a gun, I don't wear halter tops and I don't work with a digital holographic machine," she said.

She and the RUFSI team do use ground-penetrating radar, digital microscope, x-ray machines and a ballistic comparison microscope. They work and research how to answer the first question typically asked by detectives investigating a possible homicide, "How long's he been dead, Doc?"

Forensic anthropology can also help answer the sleuth's questions as to how the victim was killed.  Boyd's presentation drew on her experiences in the field, the morgue and the lab on cases such as suicides, homicides, plane crashes and mass disasters. Forensic anthropology is a sister science to other forensic sciences like forensic biology, forensic chemistry, digital forensics and forensic archeology.

Boyd specifically applies her knowledge of osteology, the scientific study of bones, to actual cases.

"When I look at you I see your skeleton," she told the nearly 200 students, faculty and guests in attendance. "Bones can tell a person's health, weight, build, diet, birthplace, occupation and handedness."

Among the different kinds of cases on which she and the RUFSI team work are law enforcement consults, forensic searches and excavation of covert burials. Skeletonized, fragmented, burned and traumatized bones are a forensic anthropologist's meat.

"In the hardest case I have done, the bones had been hidden in a barn, fallen from a loft, were trampled by cattle and run over by a tractor," she said. "They showed trauma from before death, the death itself and after death."

She also talked about a victim whom she had reconstructed that had 20 fractures in 17 ribs and a broken jaw from being stomped upon, shot and decomposed.

The nature of the work is hard, and she talked about how she resists the gallows humor and grimness that comes with dealing with the results of man's cruelty to his fellow man or nature's fury.

"I have to be as scientific as I can. To be objective, I have to focus on the science," she said.

In spite of constant exposure to the results of violent trauma, the scientific process entailed in her field stimulates Boyd.

"It is applied science and to see it in real life and learn from the immediate feedback is a self-correcting process. How science works can be astonishing.

Mar 17, 2015