Northumbria University Centre for Forensic Science

Approaching utility in forensic anthropology

M.P. Evison, R.A. Francisco & M.A. Guimarãe. Forensic Science Policy & Management, 3(2), pp.85-104 (2012).


Efficacy and cost-effectiveness have emerged as important topics in forensic science. So far, however, social research has tended to neglect infrequently used and highly specialized sub-disciplines of forensic science. This paper begins to address this deficiency with regard to one such sub-discipline, namely forensic anthropology, the analysis of skeletal remains in the interests of criminal justice. A simple attrition model is derived from the quantitative analysis of caseloads encountered at two contrasting regional medico-legal institutes: Sheffield Medico-Legal Center (SMLC) in the United Kingdom and the Centro de Medicina Legal (CEMEL) in Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo, Brazil. The pattern of cases encountered in these samples (n = 105) is assessed against 36 measures of case provenance and type, methods employed in casework, case demography, and contribution to the investigation recorded in a matrix of 3,780 data items. Representativeness in relation to forensic anthropology casework in general is established via comparison with four published surveys—Smithsonian (n = 474), Tennessee (n = 513), Montevideo (n = 344), and Porto Alegre (n = 276). The model may be improved via systematic case recording, including courtroom finalizations and verdicts. It suggests case conversions would be increased via scene attendance, improved communication and integration, end-to-end performance management, feedback on evidential reliability, and tailoring of research and education to reflect caseload. Following contemporary expectations in social research, the model is used to identify policy changes that would contribute to crime reduction and prevention. The value of forensic anthropology to public health and safety and its significance to human rights is discussed. Males predominated all of the studies considered in this analysis, whether victims of homicide, suicide, accident, or natural causes. These findings appear to offer compelling evidence to support human rights policies that recognize the right to life and health for males as well as females in countries at all stages of socioeconomic development. The right to life is the most fundamental human right to which one is entitled without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion. Despite its longevity, forensic anthropology has many attributes of a nascent discipline. Its definition and its disciplinary boundaries are uncertain, and—outside of the United States, at least—standards and regulation are inconsistent. The paper represents an attempt to offer a comprehensive, if preliminary, approach to utility in forensic anthropology in anticipation that it will provoke debate and further research.

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