RUFSI co-directors take lead to shift perception of forensic anthropology from applied to real science

Cliff and Donna Boys

Cliff and Donna Boyd examine the skull of an undentified person as they try to help Medical Examiners Offices around the Commonwealth of Virginia resolve some of their missing persons cases.

To define and demystify the theory underpinning forensic anthropology, Radford University's Cliff and Donna Boyd co-moderated a wide-ranging symposium at the 67th annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) Feb. 16-21 in Orlando.

To start the session devoted to application of theory to forensic anthropology, the Boyds, co-directors of the RU Forensic Science Institute, presented a paper titled, "Theory in forensic anthropology: a retrospective and look forward." The paper recapped the Boyds' review of over 500 research studies dealing with forensic anthropology over 20 years to demonstrate the discipline's strong scientific basis.

Later in the session, the Boyds joined a colleague, William Baden, to present a paper titled "Non-linear systems theory and its application to the assessment of post-mortem interval."  The paper presented their alternative perspective on the linear theoretical model of determining the post-mortem interval or "time-of-death" and since used data drawn from body farms to simulate decay.

Representing more than 6,000 physicians, attorneys, dentists, toxicologists, physical anthropologists, document examiners, psychiatrists, physicists, engineers, criminalists, educators and digital evidence experts from the United States, Canada and 66 other foreign countries worldwide, the AAFS is a professional society dedicated to the application of science to the law and the elevation of accuracy, precision and specificity in the forensic sciences.

"Forensic anthropology is a young discipline and now is the time to address these issues," said Donna Boyd, who added that a solid theoretical basis for the discipline would benefit the criminal justice system.

"It is frustrating to be before a jury and have evidence disallowed because the judge questions the science," she said. "Work toward a scientific foundation of forensic anthropology will solidly underpin our credence as expert witnesses."

Cliff Boyd said forensic technology, especially DNA, is exerting a powerful influence on the discipline.

"Technology is developing along lines that can be very beneficial to the field," he said. "We need to be direct and discuss the many issues about the discipline now because the future of the discipline depends upon what happens now."

The symposium included 12 presentations by forensic anthropologists to articulate the discipline's theoretical bases. Douglas Ubelaker, curator of the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History, wrapped up the session with a call to address the longstanding criticism of the field with a theoretical and scientific foundation. The panel's presentations will be collected in a book, to be edited by the Boyds and published by the AAFS, as resource.

Mar 4, 2015