Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Explorations Below Ground: Profile James E. Starrs

Justice and Closure

"I think I was drawn to it by my concern that historians were making cases that couldn't be proved scientifically," he explained in 2003 to a member of the film crew for the History Channel. "There's a statement that says, 'God in all of His omnipotence cannot change the past; that's why he created historians.'  That's my point of view.  It's the misuse and manipulation of history, the failure to recognize that there's more [to use in pursuit of knowledge] than simply factual data from historical documents.  We can also crank in scientific input.  That's vital, as far as I'm concerned, in understanding the historical record.  Historians are not generally keen on doing that.  If there's some major concern, for example, whether or not it was Jesse James who died in St. Joseph, Missouri, or whether Frank Olson's death was a homicide or a suicide -- these issues generally don't come out clear and distinct in the way historians present them."   

Starrs brings the tools of science to bear on these speculations so that he can find the truth, set the record straight and right some wrongs.   As such, he assembles teams representing the relevant areas of forensic science to help disinter and analyze the remains.  In the Packer case, he believed he had proven his point.

Exhumation of a grave
Exhumation of a grave

"My first exhumation using scientific savoir faire had been truly a total success," he comments. "The myth of Alfred Packer's innocence was proved to be a tale without support from scientific data that could be gleaned from the bones.  It clearly sets the stage for anthropology's showing us what otherwise we wouldn't know."

In addition to exhumations, he has used forensic science to examine other notorious tales, such as the prosecution's case against Lizzie Borden, the trial for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby, and the "indelible" handprint on the prison cell wall in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, left by a condemned miner who steadfastly proclaimed his innocence.  Starrs has also used archaeological resources to try to locate Samuel Washington, brother of the first U.S. president, and helped to craft computerized simulations of crimes, from the Menendez brothers' trial to the stabbing deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

Although not every case he has taken on was resolved, the questions he raises, the evidence he marshals and the effort he puts into the discovery of the truth in these and similar cases remain compelling.  Even when his research fails to close a case, the investigation process often raises important questions.   "I think about the fact that we can do something a hundred or so years after someone's death that would have been unheard of -- unthought of -- at that time."  In addition, he likes to help families find closure on cases that he feels may demand justice.  "It means so much to these people that they be told the truth as to the death of their loved one," he is quoted in a documentary as saying.  "To me, that rubs off very easily.  In that perspective, I am very much the humanist."

As impressed as some might be that this law professor would put so much time and effort into these projects, he is equally impressed with the members of his team.  Without their hard work, expertise and willingness to go above and beyond, he would be unable to achieve his successes.  So let's see what's involved.