Monday, August 30, 2010

Beyond the Body Farm

Beyond the Body Farm by Dr. Bill Bass & Jon Jefferson
HarperCollins, 2007
Hardcover, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780060875299
very highly recommended

The Dead Do Tell Tales...
A pioneer in forensic anthropology, Dr. Bill Bass created the world's first laboratory dedicated to the study of human decomposition. Bill Bass's research at "the Body Farm" has revolutionized forensic science, helping police crack cold cases and pinpoint time since death. In this riveting book, the bone sleuth explores the rise of modern forensic science, using cases from his career to take readers into the real world of "CSI."
Some of Bill Bass's cases rely on the simplest of tools and techniques, while other cases hinge on sophisticated techniques Dr. Bass could not have imagined when he began his career: using computer data and video image processing to help identify murder victims; harnessing scanning electron microscopy to detect trace elements in knife wounds; and extracting DNA from a long-buried corpse, only to find that the female murder victim may have been mistakenly identified a quarter-century before...
My thoughts:

I previously read Dr. Bass memoir, Death's Acre, after it was published in 2003. Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries, and the Revolution in Forensic Science is another collection of specific cases that complement his memoir.

This is not CSI (see the last quote). This is an account of how real forensic anthropologists work when trying to solve a case or answer a question. It's a fascinating insight into the science involved and how science has advanced over the years.

While I don't think this book is for everyone, if you are interested in how forensic anthropologists work and don't mind a few grisly details, you will find this book well worth your time. Although I would recommend Death's Acre first, this is a stand alone nonfiction book on forensic anthropology.
Very highly recommended


One of the most important lessons I've learned during my career is that justice is a team effort. In the course of any given murder case, that team may include uniformed police officers, plainclothes detectives, crime scene and lab technicians, fingerprint experts, medical examiners ("forensic physicians," you might say), firearms and ballistics examiners, toxicologists, forensic dentists, and DNA specialists.
From a broader perspective, though, forensic teamwork extends not just across scientific specialties but across decades of research and innovation. pg. xiii

Not surprisingly, when we began our research program back in the early 1980s, our experiments were designed to answer some very basic questions: How long does it take the arms to fall off? When does the skull start showing through? At what point is a body reduced to bare bone?.... Fairly quickly, though, our research projects became more sophisticated, and we developed timelines and mathematical formulas that could help us estimate, with surprising accuracy, how long someone had been dead once we obtained temperature records for the days or weeks prior to the body's discovery. pg. xvii

[W]hen people fill out the forms to donate their body to the Body Farm.... what they are actually agreeing to donate is their skeleton... pg. xix

In the chapters that follow, you'll see how things we've learned at the Body Farm have helped us identify the dead, figure out what happened to them, and in many cases (though, sadly not all) bring killers to justice. pg. xxii

One of the most revolutionary changes in forensic science in recent decades has been the advent of DNA testing; the ability to chart any person's genetic makeup - to take a genetic "fingerprint," essentially - and compare that with all sorts of forensic evidence, ranging from body fluids (including blood, saliva, and semen), to hair, to skeletal elements such as soft tissue, teeth, and bones. pg. 29

There's such a gap between how forensic science is portrayed on TV and how it is practiced in real life, and in real murder trials, that beleaguered police officers and prosecutors have given the gap a name - "the CSI effect" - and almost anytime one of them utters the phrase among colleagues, head-shaking and eye-rolling and muttering are sure to follow. pg. 163

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