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Home >Online Support Ask The Experts >Elizabeth Murray

Elizabeth Murray (Forensic Anthropologist)

Our son was murdered with a garrote almost 10 years ago in January, his face was bound with duct tape, his body was put in plastic bags, and he was buried "chest deep" in a forested area in the Northwest. Last year one of the 2 killers confessed and tried to locate our son's remains. However, due to changes in the terrain he could not find the site. The other killer has pled not guilty and is awaiting trial during the fall of 2000. He may be able to locate the burial site. I would like to know (and please do not hesitate to be very graphic) what may be found of our son. We have provided our son's dental records and DNA samples from my husband and myself. Thank you very kindly for your assistance.

With an estimated time since death of 10 years, it is most certain that a great deal (if not all) of your son's skeletal and dental remains could be recovered. This would depend, however, on the relative acidity of the soil (highly acidic soils can degrade bone, but those conditions are rare) and whether or not animal activity scattered the remains. The artifacts you mention: duct tape, plastic bags, and garrote (depending on the material from which it's made) should also be present as evidence. There is no possible way, none, short of complete animal scavenging or deliberate exhumation, that nothing is left to recover. If dentition is found, the dental records could provide a positive ID, and either dental or bony remains could provide DNA for comparison to you and/or your husband's blood. Depending on your son's age at disappearance, a trained forensic anthropologist may be able to assess the age, sex, race, and stature from the remains. Ten years should affect none of those tests. In fact, a trained forensic anthropologist may be able to look at the remains for evidence of trauma as well; and be able to differentiate animal activity from peri-mortem trauma related to your son's death.

I have been involved in several cases where clandestine burials were an issue, and the most difficult problem is locating the remains. In fact, the only times I have had success were four sites wherein the perpetrator led us to the near exact spot. One of these was more of a surface disposition, the other three were actual burials. If there are vegetation changes, it can actually be helpful, if you know what clues to look for in the terrain. If your son had metal on his person (belt buckle, etc.), a metal detector may be of assistance. Cadaver dogs could possibly be of assistance, even in a 10-year-old case, although it has been my experience that many dog handlers boast of abilities their dogs do not seem to possess (and "search and rescue dogs" are not the same thing as "cadaver dogs"). There are also many more advanced and sophisticated methods of locating clandestine burials including aerial photography and ground-penetrating radar, although professionals have had mixed results with the various methods.

I would highly recommend you solicit the advice of a local forensic anthropologist to assist when and if you get the second suspect to lead authorities to the gravesite. Very often these cases are so rare that police agencies have little or no experience in them. Anthropologists, however, are well trained in archaeological methods, and there are undoubtedly professionals in your area. With great sorrow for your loss,

- Beth Murray, Forensic Anthropologist

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How can you tell how long a person has been dead by the insects/maggots that are on the body?

The science of examining insects in the process of human decomposition is known as forensic entomology. If a deceased individual (or any animal) is exposed to the environment, specific waves of insect succession can occur. This will depend on the time of the year and the geographic location of the site, of course. Very cold locations or times of the year will have minimal or no insect activity, and warm locations or times of the year can have tremendous insect activity. These sarcophagic (flesh-eating) insects exhibit patterns of successive destruction of the corpse which can result, eventually, in a natural process of complete skeletonization. Because many insects exhibit some type of metamorphosis (life changes from, for example, egg, larva, pupa, and adult) and because these insects arrive and inhabit in specific waves, forensic entomologists can use the types of insects present and their life stages to estimate how long the person has been deceased. There are several books that have been published that offer more information on this topic, and I would be happy to provide further references.

-Beth Murray, Forensic Anthropologist

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I wonder how you can tell how my daughter died and if she had been drugged by testing remains that were almost skeletal?

Your question really has two parts. Regarding drug analysis, a toxicologist should be consulted to assist you with this topic. The coroner's or medical examiner's autopsy results should reveal what type of tissue was used for the analysis, I suppose, and what tests were performed to come to any conclusions regarding the involvement of drugs in your daughter's demise.

Regarding cause of death, that is not the task of a forensic anthropologist, but rather for the pathologist to determine, if possible. The only facts which a forensic anthropologist could report upon would be any evidence of trauma to the bone, or possibly to calcified (hardened) cartilage's, such as those in the larynx (voicebox). This trauma could include such things as fractures, sharp wounds, gunshot wounds, etc. A trained individual could differentiate peri-mortem injuries (those that occurred at or around the time of death), from any pre-mortem injuries (events which occurred some time ago, such as a broken arm that never healed properly from childhood), or post-mortem events (natural or made-made modifications that have taken place since the remains were abandoned, such as carnivore damage or disturbance from a backhoe, etc.). If peri-mortem wounds or injuries presented themselves, they would be described by the anthropologist to the pathologist. It would then be up to the pathologist to decide what contributions those had to cause or manner of death.

My sincere sympathies for your loss.

- Beth Murray, Forensic Anthropologist

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My daughter was murdered 11 years ago. I was never allowed to see her. She was strangled by the perps hands and hidden in a closet that was over a heating vent. She was also covered with blankets. I saw the photos last year before I met her offender for mediation. She had a LOT of skin slip. We had her put in a mausoleum. Sometimes I feel like I want to take the casket out to see and hold her. I probably won't, but if I did, what would I find left? I know it sounds nuts but I wonder. As painful as it was to look at the photos, I needed to. I finally felt like I could make an identification. Thank you if you can respond.

The condition of a body 11 years in a mausoleum would be highly dependent upon its condition when placed in the mausoleum. If the body was embalmed, there could be much better preservation than if not. It is my understanding, however, that bodies that are already decomposing at burial (as your mention of skin slippage indicates), are often difficult - if not impossible - to embalm. Those are often simply treated externally, and would, as a result, suffer more rapid decay once entombed. For more details in that regard, I would find out what type of embalming treatment, if any, your daughter's body was given prior to burial, and then contact a mortician for his or her opinion.

From my own experience and knowledge, bodies that have not undergone significant decomposition and are embalmed quickly after death may remain in a remarkable state of preservation for a very long time (decades, and in some cases, centuries). Once marked soft-tissue decomposition has begun, however, it is a difficult process to interrupt. Skeletal tissues, however, remain long after death and decomposition, and your daughter's skeleton may be completely preserved. Even if no soft tissues remain, all the bones of her body should still be present in your vault. No one likes to think of a loved one in that manner, but it may be of some comfort to know that "part" of your daughter is definitely still in the mausoleum. As a mother myself, I cannot imagine your pain, but I think it would be best to try to remember her as she lived, and try not to concern yourself with the present condition of her remains.

- Beth Murray, Forensic Anthropologist

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Can having my son's remains exhumed help prove he was murdered? If so what is the standard procedure to get a body exhumed?Thank you for your time.

Exhumations can, in fact, reveal more information about a decedent, particularly if the individual was not originally autopsied prior to burial. Even if an autopsy was performed, a second opinion can always be sought from an independent pathologist. If the body is now skeletonized or was already decomposed when originally buried, then an anthropologist would be better able to perform a thorough examination of the bones than a pathologist. If I know where you live, I may be able to provide you the name of a qualified anthropologist in your area.
Keep in mind that the state of preservation of buried remains varies extensively, depending on their condition at burial, whether embalming took place, how long the body has been buried, and how well the coffin/vault seals hold up. Also, know that many things that could show evidence of murder may not hold up over time. If wounds were to soft tissues and the body is decomposed, for example, that evidence is gone. If a skeleton is all that remains, there are many ways that a person can be murdered and it will leave no trace in the skeleton.
I do not know the standard procedure to get a body exhumed in your area, but would recommend you consult your local coroner or a funeral home -- these practices vary from state to state, I believe, but exhumations can and do occur when necessary, so I'm sure someone in your county would be able to help you with the paperwork necessary.

- Beth Murray, Forensic Anthropologist

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My question is, would you positively be able to identify a 3 yr old by sight if his body was in water for 8 days?

There are quite a few variables to consider with regard to this issue. One would be the temperature of the water, as well as whether there was any type of wrapping on the body and what kind of carnivorous, omnivorous or scavenging creatures may be present in the water. Very, very cold water can have a preserving effect by thwarting decomposition for a while. However, I think that unless the water was extremely cold, normal decompositional processes would make a visual identification difficult after being submerged for eight days -- unless, of course, there was something extremely unusual about the individual, such as a very unique feature -- like a tattoo, a prominent birthmark or unusual dental pattern. In general, the bodies of children are typically more "generic," if you will, than those of adults, in my opinion. I hope this helps answer your question, and please don't hesitate to contact me again if you have further information.

- Beth Murray, Forensic Anthropologist

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Hello, my question is for a forensic anthropologist.
I am interested in this career path, but I have been stuck on a question for a long time.
When identifying a victim, do anthropologists ever take into consideration that a victim may be transgender? This bothers me greatly because if you determine the sex to be female for example, and the victim is actually a trans-man who may have all legal records stating their sex to be male, you'd be looking for a female, in the complete opposite direction. Deaths of transgender individuals are among the most silent. I am myself a trans-man, so that is why this question bothers me deeply. I am hoping that someone may be able to answer this for me.

Although many people use the terms sex and gender interchangeably (some thinking the term "gender" is just a polite term for the word "sex"), sex and gender are not the same thing to an anthropologist.  Sex is biological, while gender is cultural or sociological (how a person chooses to present himself or herself in society).  When anthropologists assess the sex of a decedent from his or her bones, we can only assess the person's biological sex, not the person's chosen gender.  Biological sex is based on X and Y chromosomes and the hormones they cause the body to produce, which in turn shape some bones during puberty. Hormones administered after puberty, such as when a person is administered hormone therapy during a gender change or sex reassignment, do not alter his or her post-pubertal skeletal structure. Therefore, a forensic anthropologist would really have no way to differentiate the bones of someone who is transgender/transsexual from those of someone of the same biological/chromosomal sex who is not transgender/transsexual.  In other words, a woman who develops strong female traits within her pelvis during puberty would retain that same pelvic bone structure, even if administered male hormones post-puberty.  So even if she became a transgender or transsexual male, an anthropologist would still assess the transgender/transsexual man's pelvis as female.  Likewise, DNA testing on a person's bones (or other body tissues, such as hair) would continue to show that person's original chromosomal state (such a Y-profile if the person was born male, and/or his or her XY amelogenin genetic profile). You are correct that a transgender or transsexual state could completely thwart identification if the biological profile derived for the decedent was based solely on an examination of bone structure by an anthropologist.  However, DNA testing would still match a decedent to his or her family members or his or her own unique DNA profile, even if that person was transgender or transsexual.  So DNA testing would be crucial in such a situation; the national DNA database does not rely on gender (or even sex) to match DNA profiles of missing and unidentified persons. Within the CODIS DNA database, all DNA profiles of unidentified persons are compared to all DNA profiles of missing persons (or the family reference samples provided by relatives of that missing person), regardless of whether the individuals involved are male or female, and transgender/transsexual or not. Fortunately, DNA testing has now become commonplace in all cases involving unidentified decedents -- it would be up to the families or loved ones of missing persons to make sure the proper family reference samples were also put into the national DNA database to ensure a match.  Unfortunately, there are cases where missing person's reports are not filed or there are no relatives (or relatives are unwilling) to provide a comparative DNA sample. In those cases, a correct identification may never happen for the decedent, sadly.

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