Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Explorations Below Ground: Profile James E. Starrs

The Professor-Explorer

James E. Starrs
James E. Starrs

He's known internationally as the man who digs up the dead. Having examined the remains of such infamous people as Jesse James and Albert DeSalvo, which stirred up much press and quite a bit of controversy, he fervently hopes to do the same with the remains of American explorer Meriwether Lewis to determine his precise manner of death. Sometimes referred to as "the father of Indiana Jones," Professor James E. Starrs bears a resemblance to Sean Connery, including a twinkle in his Irish eye.

Scientific Evidence in Civil and Criminal Cases
Scientific Evidence in Civil and
Criminal Cases

Starrs is the David B. Weaver Research professor of law and a professor of forensic science at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He has been on the faculty there since 1964. Speaking about his dual appointments, he says, "It's a wonderful mix, because 'forensic' means law. I delight in the mix of the two, because I can do the law part handily, and over the years I've learned a great deal with respect to the science part, working [in the field] with people, taking special courses, and so on." Co-author of Scientific Evidence in Civil and Criminal Cases, a Distinguished Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and a regular contributor to the Academy News for many years, he hasn't always been received well by his colleagues. In fact it was his penchant to act as a gadfly ensuring rigorous scientific protocol that precipitated his first exhumation. In other words, it was serendipity, but Starrs turned it into a regular occupation.

A Voice for the Dead
A Voice for the Dead

In a book about his most famous cases, A Voice for the Dead, he describes how he went to Colorado in 1989 to attend the academy meetings and after finding himself shut out, he decided to get into his rental car and explore the area. A local story that had always interested him was that of Alfred Packer, tried for the 1874 murders of five men in his mining party.

"The Alfred Packer case," Starrs explains, "is one that intrigued me over a long period of time as a teacher in a course in criminal law, because I always wondered why he, as recorded, alleged that he acted in self-defense when he might have alleged that he acted out of necessity. I wanted to find out what the truth of the matter was, so I went down to Lake City, Colorado."

Alfred Packer
Alfred Packer

As the story goes, in 1874 in the middle of winter, against advice, Packer accompanied the five doomed men across the San Juan Mountains on their way to better mining prospects near Georgetown, Colo. Aside from Packer, that was the last time anyone saw these men alive. After two months, Packer arrived at the Los Pinos Indian Agency alone, with plenty of money and no apparent hunger. He told several conflicting stories about his missing cronies, including that they had died off one at a time along the way from hunger and exposure, but when the snow melted, a wandering artist, John A. Randolph for Harper's magazine, came into Colorado's Slumgullion Pass and found the decomposing remains of all five close together. So much for Packer's tale.

The Hinsdale County coroner held an immediate inquest at the site and Packer was arrested. He then escaped from prison but was eventually returned. Tried twice thanks to a legal technicality, he was found guilty first of murder and then of manslaughter, and sentenced to 40 years. After serving 16, Packer was paroled.

Albert DeSalvo, alleged Boston Strangler
Albert DeSalvo, alleged
Boston Strangler

To this day, people are still divided on the issue of his guilt, with many in Colorado declaring him a state hero. However, after Professor Starrs' team excavated the graves of the five victims in 1989 and examined the bones in an anthropology lab, they found cuts on arm and hand bones possibly indicative of defensive wounds, as well as nicks that supported the account that the men had been defleshed. Starrs said in his forensic quarterly, Scientific Sleuthing Review, that Packer was a murdering cannibal and a liar.

Frank Olson
Frank Olson

For him, this scientific exploration was such a resounding success that he turned his attention to other historical mysteries. To date, he has performed more than 20 exhumations on such notable figures as Jesse James, CIA murder victim Frank Olson, the supposed assassin of Huey Long (Carl Weiss), and "Boston Strangler" Albert DeSalvo, along with the young woman who purportedly was his final victim, Mary Sullivan. The latter is perhaps his most important case, since it casts significant doubt on DeSalvo's famous confession to all the crimes and on his status as the notorious killer. If DeSalvo was not the killer, then who was and where is this man now?

Exhuming the dead is a unique enterprise, to be sure -- morbid to some, ridiculous to a few, but important to others. Starrs draws both praise and criticism, yet he always manages to attract a team of bright and dedicated professionals who perform a thorough analysis. But why does he do it?

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