Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Explorations Below Ground: Profile James E. Starrs

The Teams

While Starrs teaches a course in forensic science, he does not attempt to operate outside his field of expertise.  Instead, before undertaking an exhumation, he evaluates each case according to the appropriate personnel needed and then puts together a team.  He also locates a facility willing to allow him to use an autopsy suite or lab, and a funeral director and attorney to assist with logistics, arrangements, and paper work.

First and foremost, he measures a case against his requirements for doing an exhumation and autopsy (or re-autopsy). 

"For an exhumation to be warranted," he writes in A Voice for the Dead, "I require minimally that the following conditions be fulfilled:

  • "There must be a significant dispute to which science can make a contribution.
  • "Some type of new scientific method must be available that was not present at the time the issue to be resolved arose.
  • "There must be more than a likelihood that the remains will be in sufficient condition to be analyzed, which involves a variety of tasks such as testing the soil pH and mineral content where the remains are buried, determining the method and depth of burial, knowing the time since burial, gathering climatic and environmental data, and forestalling the disturbance of adjacent graves."

The first task in each case is collecting all available historical documentation, which means looking into court records, old newspapers, books written on a person's life and death, and other records, including autopsy reports and burial methods.   Each state may have its own requirements, so Starrs must learn something different for Massachusetts, for example, than for Pennsylvania or Colorado.  Once he has the case records in order and all necessary documents from family or descendents, he determines whom he will need to invite from the various forensic specializations and he prepares an extensive case notebook for each one.  Among his team members have been nationally-prominent experts such as Michael Baden, Henry Lee, Bill Bass, and Douglas Ubelaker.  Some members, such as forensic anthropologist Jack Levisky, forensic pathologist Jack Frost, and geologist George Stevens, are regulars.

Douglas Ubelaker
Douglas Ubelaker
 

"In some cases," Starrs explains, "it's anthropology, archaeology, and possibly tool-mark or firearms experts.  In a case with flesh [on the bones], you have to have pathologists, and if there's poison involved, you need toxicologists for an analysis of the organs and tissues.  You want to look under the fingernails for tissue, so you need a microscopist for that.  You need an array of scientific disciplines, and indeed, the teeth are often impacted when people are killed in violent confrontation, so you need an odontologist, a forensic dental expert.  I don't ask every one of these disciplines to come to the autopsy suite, because some of them we can't be sure are necessary, it's costly to have them there, and it wastes their time."

Starrs pitches in where he can, even while he's coordinating the team. "Sometimes I will suit up and do the diener's work. There's one, maybe two pathologists, but I may be the one who takes the samples and the bones sections that we're going to use for DNA analysis later on."  He also relies on the help of technicians to bring in equipment and ensure the proper protocol.  Along with the principal professionals, someone handles evidence and documentation, someone does photography and videography, someone takes X-rays, and a variety of people fill support positions.  A project can take several days, depending on how painstaking it will be and what kind of equipment is available.

"I'm a generalist," Starrs states.  "That's why I have to call in other people.  It's a team effort.  And this is the way all finds of a homicidal nature should be resolved.  It should involve contributions of all these different fields, and one of my goals and purposes of doing all this is to convince law enforcement that this is a scientific endeavor."

At the end of the day, as the tired members of his team assemble for a collective dinner and debriefing (sometimes knowing they may have resolved nothing), Starrs expresses his appreciation for what each person has done. "To think of the people who painstakingly put this all together, all for the purposes of showing the consummate value of science - it's awe-inspiring to think that people would give themselves so willingly without any hindrance to a project of this kind."  Quite a few pay their own expenses to get there.

Inevitably, these projects end up in the pages of Scientific Sleuthing Review (www.scientificsleuthing.org), a professional quarterly that Starrs founded in 1976 and still writes for and edits.

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