Friday, July 20, 2012

Forensic Anthropology and the Motive for Murder

All---

Phineas Gage's skull with injury
photo by Kelley DJ, Farhoud M, Meyerand ME,
Nelson DL, Ramirez LF, et al.
Beyond visceral reactions ("eww that's gross") and normal work reactions ("my goodness these measurements are boring") one of the most challenging aspects of forensic anthropology is how deep a silo you're working in.

The forensic anthropology team's work sometimes starts with the collection of remains, but often only starts when someone from the coroner's office calls and says, "Yeah, this one's for you," and the team goes to pick up the remains from the coroner's own facilities.

The team works in the lab.

The team may, occasionally, consult with a police officer who has questions about identify or physical evidence that can't wait for a report.  (A lot of times, the evidence of anthropology is only needed for building a case, but sometimes it does help give some direction during an active investigation.)

In the end, there's a report.

The certified forensic anthropologist associated with the lab or a duly-nominated, qualified representative may be asked to testify in trial.

It's interesting, rewarding work, but it is surprisingly compartmentalized.  Most of the time, the forensic techs working the remains are pretty isolated from the rest of the case.  Their job is to measure the bones, describe the trauma, perform a few analyses.  There's no reason for them to know about the victim, the crime, or any suspects, beyond what is present in the bones.

That probably doesn't sound like too big a deal.

But when you've spent a day working with someone's bones, and what you have is, "This guy got kicked in the head so hard it busted his skull open," and, "This lady was shut so many times that we can't even reconstruct the interior of her skull," and "This child was perfectly heavy until something crushed its rib cage," you become pretty intimate with the pain of the victim.

When I was involved, I made the decision to not allow myself to get jaded or to use a lot of dehumanizing humor to distance myself.  I left myself open to the pain of the victim.

And it was all I had.

I didn't know anything else most of the time.  Occasionally I might know enough that I could do a little internet research and figure out what case I was probably working on, but that was actually pretty unusual.  Most of the time I had a police case number and I had the anonymous data I was gathering and analyzing.

And the victim's pain.

Always.  Always.  Always.  The biggest question was, "How could someone do this?"  "How could anyone do this to another person?"  "What would drive someone to hurt anyone in this way?"

You know what I learned?

It doesn't matter.

At all.

Not to me.  Not to you.  Not even to the victim.

It matters in court.  The prosecution needs to demonstrate why the accused might have committed the crime.  The defense needs to demonstrate why there's no reason for the accused to have committed such a crime -- or why the crime might have been justified.

But the victim's pain doesn't change, based on the motive of the bad guy.  The victim's family does has not lost any less, based on the reasons of the rotter.  My own grief and the grief of society for the victim drives us to look for explanations, but those explanations really don't change anything important.

By being completely denied access to the motives, I was given the opportunity to construct imaginary scenarios.  I invariably did, and invariably I constructed more than one.  There was usually one at an extreme of malicious motive.  There was usually another at an extreme of justified, innocent, or accidental motivation.

And when I looked at the bones, they didn't change based on what I imagined.  Neither did the pain they reflected.

There is a time and a place for understanding the motive for a murder.  But let's not kid ourselves.  When people are killed, it just sucks.  Motive doesn't change that.  At all.

And searching for motive and talking about motive and wondering about motive can be a distraction from that core truth.

So I'll say it again.

When people are killed, it just sucks.

.Nevets.

5 comments:

  1. You're an interesting man, Nevets.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow, Nevets! This is fascinating, honestly. But if it just sucks when people are killed, then there's a lot of lost stories there. I can't help but create stories out of all those imagined motives. Now I want to write a short story about forensics...

    ReplyDelete
  3. @Michelle - The truth of the matter is, most of the time there's not much story in the motives. A lot of substance abuse. A lot of flashes of temper. A surprising number of random or accidental acts. Even the serial killers I came into contact with it, the killers themselves didn't have much of a story. They acted out of a compulsion the same way that someone might sneak a candy bar. It's done in the shadows, but not with a lot of intrigue and back-story. The story, most of the time, is with the victim and their family.

    Evil, it turns out, isn't that interesting to act out. The "interesting" stuff is in the lives it cuts short, the pain it causes, and the waves that ripple outward.

    That said, the imagined motives are definitely interesting, and there's nothing wrong with writing stories about those.

    Don't get me wrong; I'm not criticizing mystery writers or crime fiction. I'm really just cautioning people in the real world against the trap of missing the opportunity to grieve and to face loss by getting distracted by focusing on motives before they first come to grips with the horror and sadness of someone's being killed.

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Anne - lol Thanks, I'll accept that. :)

    ReplyDelete

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