Forensic Science: Real Practice vs. Television Drama

A Live Chat With Professor Elizabeth A. Murray, Forensic Anthropologist

On November 5, 2015, Professor Elizabeth Murray sat down for a live Q&A session with her fans from across the globe. The chat is over, but the transcript is posted below for you to enjoy.

photo of Professor Elizabeth Murray
Professor Elizabeth Murray

MURRAY: Hi, everyone, and welcome to our chat session! I’m glad you’re here and hoping to answer as many of your questions as possible. I’d like to begin by thanking The Great Courses and its awesome staff for setting up this opportunity for us. Let’s get started!

CONCERNEDINCA: Improved data (facts) is always desirable. What are your views on which has improved more due to recent advances in forensic science, public safety & law enforcement efforts or justice for those falsely accused/convicted of crimes?

MURRAY: I don’t think we’ve managed to improve the data or facts so much as we have found better ways to uncover them and assess them. I would like to hope that advances in forensic science are improving public safety and law enforcement, while at the same time not compromising our rights. However, my personal interest has leaned more toward justice for those falsely convicted of crimes – in fact, my most recent book is about that topic. DNA technology has revolutionized much in the way of forensics!

NORMXXX: How accurate is most of the forensic evidence? There has been much evidence recently that most if not all such evidence is suspect, even techniques in unquestioned use for many decades, e.g. fingerprint ids, bite marks, blood spatter…

MURRAY: Obviously we always hope our evidence is good, but recent investigations into certain techniques – such as bitemarks, as you suggest – have shown them to be problematic. While I can’t agree with the analogy of a Rorschach test, the 2009 National Academy of Science’s Report on the state of forensics has prompted some great inquiry into techniques. I see this as a very positive thing, and look forward to what the future will bring.

Right now the nation’s forensic scientists are working on new standards that will take us forward, and it’s very exciting. Some methods did need analysis, but also some practitioners are not trained as well as they could or should be. These new standards will be about both training and methodology.

BRADLEY STEEG: Gun control is a hot topic. Do you have any recommendations on how we might reduce criminal gun violence through legislation or other methods in the future? I’m trying to decipher which policies have a good chance of working and which ones are less effective.

MURRAY: Wow, that’s a big topic to tackle, and you are right, our country is in the midst of a major epidemic of criminal violence involving guns. People are so tired of the killing, but yet both sides have strong feelings and arguments. I don’t have the answers, and in fact, the issue is so polarizing that it’s difficult to even discuss. For instance, I had talked with my publisher about writing a book for young adults on gun violence, and really had to consider whether I wanted to do that.

For now, the book is on hold. It’s a vastly important topic, but so polarizing. I wish I had the answers, but I don’t.

MIKE GNITECKI: How often do you develop an initial theory based on your first impression, versus how often it comes purely from analyzing evidence deeply?

MURRAY: When I analyze skeletal remains, I always do a thorough “first impression” take first (I guess that’s kind of an oxymoron, but…). I like to use my training and impressions BEFORE I tackle the more analytic aspects. If I did the assessments the other way around (i.e. measure then observe), the analytics could bias my judgment. Does that answer your question?

ALAN ROCKER: “Speculating in the absence of data is a capital mistake.” Sherlock Holmes.

MURRAY: Don’t misunderstand, I do my visual assessments FIRST to try and avoid bias (and sometimes my visual assessments are more accurate than the measurements; particularly if remains are not stereotypical). I fear if the metric analyses are done first, they would potentially cloud my judgment. So these are not “speculations” so much as subjective methods that I confirm (or refute) with analytical methods subsequently.


PROTRAINER: What is the minimum education required to be able to become a Forensic Investigator?

MURRAY: That depends on what type of forensic investigator. There are so many different fields within the overall umbrella of forensics. Some law enforcement officers and death investigators are doing forensic investigations with a bachelor or even associate’s degree. However, more specialized fields require more training. Forensic pathologists, for example, go through medical school, a fellowship, and beyond. I have a bachelor’s, master’s, and a PhD.

At present, you must have a PhD to be a board-certified forensic anthropologist. Different fields have different requirements, and interestingly, some don’t have any official “schools” for them (like handwriting analysis), but are more “on the job” training and/or residencies/apprenticeships. I talk a lot about the preparation for various fields in my first series for The Great Courses.

ROY B: Do you have any favorite fiction/crime writers that really do a good job getting the forensics right?

MURRAY: I used to read a lot of Patricia Cornwell, and of course my friend and colleague, Kathy Reichs is a great author. Both are experienced practitioners, so very true-to-life. I had a great experience speaking for a mystery writer’s conference, and there seem to be a lot of up-and-coming authors. But my go-to books are often true-crime stories, not novels. Anything about past forensic mysteries and investigations.

video graphic from The Great Course Forensic History: Crimes, Frauds, and Scandals
Check out more in “Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works”

MATT REDLE: In your opinion, what is the most important effort, currently underway, to improve the quality of forensic science?

MURRAY: Subsequent to the previously-mentioned 2009 report on the state of forensic science, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has organized working groups to develop standards to ensure that what we do is impeccably valid work. This is a huge effort and involves many different practitioners and disciplines. Exciting times in forensics!

JAMES M TEMPLE: How do you feel about the CSI shows on TV. I Laugh when I see a civilian CSI tech conduct investigations, question witnesses and suspects then turn to a sworn officer or turn to a police officer and tell them to lock that person up?

MURRAY: Well, I think they want us to follow a cast of characters more so than the science in those shows. It’s ludicrous when they have the lab people questioning witnesses, talking to family members, carrying a gun and badge, and so forth. Some of the shows are definitely better than others. I have to say that most of the professionals do not watch them though.

PROTRAINER: You agree with Ms. Cornwell on the identity of Jack the Ripper?

MURRAY: A lot of people have a lot of Ripper theories – to each his own. That is one COLD case, and I don’t think we will ever resolve it. I do have to say that the bogus claim last year really had some people excited. Big splash in the news. But when it was revealed that they had read the DNA wrong, that part didn’t make the big splash it should have.

results of poll question "what is the best forensic science show on TV?"

HEATHER: In your opinion, if the fingerprints of all Americans were on file for use by law enforcement, would it be a boon to crime solving? What about privacy issues?

MURRAY: I think taking each person’s DNA would be more useful, but I don’t think people would find that comforting. While either might boost crime resolutions, if we hold to “innocent until proven guilty” using our jury system, well, we can’t go there. I do support taking the DNA and prints of those who are convicted, though – it has helped resolve additional offenses.

THOMAS PAWLICK: Forensics is a science, which automatically means it should be constantly re-examined by other scientists to verify its accuracy. That’s how it should be. That said, however, I might add that it is also a wonderful profession and can sometimes be a lot of fun. I have been an investigative journalist for 45 years and both my police friends and I think there is no profession better.

MURRAY: Agreed! It has been a wonderful career, and combined with teaching, I could not have asked for more.

MAUREEN: I teach high school science and some of my students have expressed interest in pursuing a career in forensic science. How would you advise them to proceed?

MURRAY: I emphasize that “forensic” is the adjective, but “science” is the noun. They need to focus on science (all types) and math, and work to be diligent in their observational skills. Communication skills are also very important – both oral and written. It’s not for everyone, but I love that students are taking more of an interest in science due to the forensic applications. And I salute all you high school teachers out there!

ALAN ROCKER: A lot of people don’t seem to realize that “forensic” means “legal” or “related to lawyers”.

MURRAY: Actually, “forensics” has come to mean “legal,” but it emerges from the Latin word for “public” or “in the public eye” (i.e. from “forum”). Some would translate as “open to public debate” (in fact, some may recall the “forensic team” was the “debate team” in schools of the past). You are correct, Alan, that many people do not know its origin; many I ask seem to think it means “dead” or “crime”.

BLAINE: Do you feel a need to “decompress” after an investigation – I imagine you get used to adopting a dispassionate attitude when looking at certain evidence, but I would imagine it’d wear on a person.

MURRAY: Of course the worst part of the job is seeing what people can and will do to each other. It can be terrible, and cases involving children are the worst, by far. I think you just have to keep a clear head and recognize that your emotions can cloud your judgment. When that happens, you can’t do your best work. But yes, sometimes it is very difficult.

BLAINE: Thank you for the reply. I’m looking at these slides of Laos, Guatemala, and I think it must be staggering. The one in Guatemala with the onlookers was especially poignant.

MURRAY: Yes, I have worked many crime scenes in my years, but none where the family sat alongside the grave, singing, talking, and observing. Puts a different feeling to it, and it actually felt better to me, more so than worse — though these people were REQUESTING their loved ones be exhumed to document the war crimes involved in their deaths.

CODY: One of my colleagues thinks handwriting analysis is bogus, and compared it to palmistry. But I find handwriting psychology analysis works well with other types of psychology training. What say you?

MURRAY: Depends on what type of handwriting analysis you’re talking about. The idea that you can tell someone’s sex, mood, or the like is bogus (in my opinion and training) — but handwriting comparison is common and valuable in the hands of a trained practitioner.

RICHARD: What organizations set the standards for forensic evidence?

MURRAY: The premier organization in the US — and really the world — is the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. I am proud to be a fellow in that organization. Each February some 6000 of us come together and meet and share new research. Many of our accrediting groups also convene at the same time. Board exams are held, students are encouraged, and just general “hob-nobbing with our fellow wizards!”

photo of Professor Murray in Laos, 2000
Professor Murray with a slow loris in Laos, 2000

LESTAHL: Did the detectives in the O J Simpson case do a thorough enough job? What evidence did they miss in your opinion?

MURRAY: I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that I am convinced that OJ did kill his wife and her friend. However, with that said, there were mistakes made in evidence collection and possibly analysis. We hold that all that needs to be present is “reasonable doubt,” and clearly if there was tainted evidence, that’s enough for a not guilty verdict.

Do I think he is a danger to society? Not so much as a danger to those closest to him. I honestly think the greater good was done to set him free because of the reasonable doubt and the tensions involved in that case.

JAMES M TEMPLE: Is there one unsolved case within the last 50 years that you were never involved with that you would like to look into to see if you can come up with more evidence?

MURRAY: Well, I have so many cold cases in my care through the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. I wish I had more evidence in all of them. Sadly, some have been cremated, records destroyed and the like. Some will never be resolved.

I think I originally missed the part of your question in that you weren’t referring to my own cases. A case that is completely intriguing to me is that of the Tylenol Murders of 1982. Perhaps because I so vividly recall the nightly news in that regard (and though had taken two years of HS chemistry, and two years of college chemistry at that point, was not yet involved in forensics).

But anthropology took me in another direction, and the Tylenol case doesn’t involve bones, so I would not have been involved. Nonetheless, I am really surprised that one has not been solved. I do like (spoiler alert…) James Lewis for it, though (as the prime suspect), as I discuss in “Forensic History”.

GORDYSOCCERUK: Has DNA ever been used to frame somebody? #ForensicChat

MURRAY: I don’t know of a specific case, but I can imagine that’s possible. It’s an interesting thought. And please, as they say, “Do not try this at home!”

BRADLEY STEEG: Google and others are making rapid advances in image recognition thanks to machine learning algorithms. And we all post photos to Facebook. I’m thinking of the Boston Bombers. If I take a photo with my smart phone the image is automatically uploaded (backed up) to my Google account over wireless within minutes, sometimes seconds. Consequently, an event like the Boston Marathon will have enormous amounts of visual data collection stored on various social media services. But, I might die in the blast and I won’t be able to authorize the FBI to use my image data taken during the event. What *legal* efforts are underway by the FBI to utilize distributed smart phone data collection stored on social media servers? Are we looking forward to an ‘opt-out’ selection on our social media privacy agreements?

MURRAY: Interesting (again, Bradley). I believe with probable cause, important evidence — including digital evidence — can be obtained for use in a criminal investigation. This happens all the time. Our privacy only goes so far when criminal matters are in issue.

HUGH: This country must spend 100s of billions of dollars on criminal justice. Are there any priority paid to do R&D on reliable determination of what people state are true or false?

MURRAY: I think you are talking about lie detection methods? If so, I think we have to consider that there are some people who do not show the tell-tale signs of lying (if there are tell-tale signs). Psychopaths and sociopaths will always allude these tests, I bet. And they are the most frightening characters of all for that and other reasons. Also, memory is not accurate, so people may not realize they are not “telling the truth.” Memory is complex. So is truth.

MELNUCLEAR: What are some of the most interesting type of cases you have worked on? I don’t want to sound corny, but my only real exposure to a forensic anthropologist is my favorite character Dr. Temperance Brennan. It sounds like very important and interesting work.

MURRAY: It is important and interesting work, for sure. And because the Tempe character is written by and based on a real forensic anthropologist, there’s a strong element of reality in some of the casework examples, I think. The most interesting cases to me are those involving identification. I wrote a book (for young adults) on all facets of ID — from skin, to bones and medical devices, to molecular means (such as DNA).

Now people may think that DNA renders anthropology obsolete — or will do so in the future. Perhaps if everybody gets their DNA taken at birth and put into a database, that could happen. But until then, the anthropologist comes in first to develop a biological profile (age, sex, stature, etc.) and then the DNA or the dentist gets the credit. (I am being facetious about the “credit” part.)

ALAN ROCKER: “Data science” has become a hot topic recently. Is there anything in the way of data storage, processing, or computing, that could be of real benefit in your work?

MURRAY: Your question immediately makes me think of all my cold cases. The problem with so much of our past casework was we had no way to store all that bulky data (x-rays, photos, etc.). Computers and their data storage have revolutionized what we do these days. I only wish that we could retrieve all the lost data from the past!  I don’t know where that will take us in the future, but it sure would have benefited us in the past. Microfilm is a poor substitute for a storage drive!

photo of Professor Murray on a dig in Laos, 2000
Professor Murray on a dig in Laos, 2000

KAREN ROWE: How does new information and processes get disseminated to forensics practitioners especially in small towns?

MURRAY: All practitioners are required to have continuing education, regardless of big or small towns. Research is conducted all over the world, and through publication and presentation at national meetings, it becomes accepted. With the internet, there is so much sharing of information. And believe it or not, I just got a call the other day from a friend who is a magistrate here in town, and he was doing continuing education and they were using my Teaching Company material!

How awesome is that? Anyway, there are mandatory trainings for officers, coroners, anthropologists and the like. Just as for other practitioners, like nurses and others.

BLAINE: What did your anthropology training give you over and above what you learned in your biology training? At my university they had internships for undergraduates at the coroner’s office, and they accepted both anthropology majors and biology majors. Of course many who went were double-majors, but I always wondered if those who hadn’t experienced both had different experiences because of what they learned.

MURRAY: My anthropology master’s experience was the “four field” approach (physical, linguistic, archaeology, and cultural), and that was great. However, my bachelor’s in biology, with 2.5 years of chemistry, was really a superb preparation for physical — and specifically — forensic anthropology, which is a sub-discipline in physical, as you know.

I still think that the other parts of anthropology are crucial, but where forensics is concerned, I think more science is important.

PARTINGTON: What advances have been made in analyzing cremated remains?

MURRAY: Interesting you should ask — I was part of the first group to look into this from a forensic perspective. It was after the Noble, GA crematorium scandal. The question was, how do you analyze bone ash — particularly given it’s already burned. Many analytical methods — like GC mass spec — use burning to assess the components in a mixture. But you can’t do that with cremains. At UT Chattanooga and at my own university, we worked on other methods to analyze cremains.

The question there (in the crematory scandal) was whether the cremains were adulterated (i.e. watered down) and if so, with what? It was a very interesting matter. At present, I am no longer working on that issue, but it was critical in that situation.

GENE HULL: Do all major cities have the same forensic labs available to police, etc?

MURRAY: Well, yes and no. Smaller jurisdictions typically send evidence to larger regional crime labs. Some states have a lab that is open to any jurisdiction in the state, free of charge. There are also national labs (FBI and U of North TX) that can be called on for “big jobs”. So, the problem becomes collection and proper transfer. There should never be a reason for not being able to analyze evidence (at least I hope!).

NINAMAE: Can a person with a health care background (such as Nursing) transition into a Forensics career? If so, what degree would they need to attain?

MURRAY: Have you heard of forensic nursing? Some coroner and ME offices are using forensic nurses to analyze deaths — particularly hospital deaths. I think if you do some research, you can find more about that. Some are SANE nurses (sexual assault nurse examiners) and take rape kits and such in emergency departments. The problem is, I don’t know how well that is catching on, or what agencies use forensic nurses.

MELANIE: Legally can the forensic team or the specific doctors be held accountable for not doing their jobs adequately?

MURRAY: I definitely think so — anyone can be charged with malpractice, and some forensic practitioners have been. Joyce Gilchrist is one heinous example. I also talk about “dirty cops” in some of my Teaching Company presentations. We had a local sheriff who was dealt with after aiding the disposal of a body. Yes, yes, yes — bad apples need to be weeded out! And the good news is there are always ways of doing so.

video graphic about the 1982 Tylenol scare
Check out more in “Forensic History: Crimes, Frauds, and Scandals

DENNIS TOMLINSON: What do you think of the Missing 411 books by David Paulides? Are the cases in the books part of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System?

MURRAY: Well, his works are non-fiction, so I imagine some could be in NamUs, but without having the lists of his books’ cases in front of me, I wouldn’t know for sure. NamUs is a service that is open to the public, so if you are interested, you could go on the site and do a search by name for some of Paulides’ cases. Some of my students browse NamUs on a regular basis because the missing person stories are so fascinating. Unfortunately, some are also very sad.

ALAN ROCKER: Not all areas of science can be considered equally certain. Do you have a spectrum of topics ranging from “Easy to be absolutely sure” to “on a balance of probabilities, maybe”, or the equivalent, and if so, what would they be?

MURRAY: Yes, some methods are fairly cut-and-dried with regard to their accuracy. If a good sample, DNA and fingerprints are extremely reliable, since they are individuating evidence (i.e. unique). Bitemarks, hair microscopy, and arson investigation have been really called into question of late (pursuant to the 2009 National Academy of Science report). However, it’s sometimes difficult to separate whether its the method or an improperly-trained practitioner that’s at fault.

There are too many poorly-trained investigators out there, owing, perhaps, to the rapid growth and popularity of the field of forensics (growing faster than the training programs can keep up). Hair analysis, though, has been essentially thrown out by the FBI based on their retrospective analyses (I talk about that in my course and my “Overturning Wrongful Convictions” book).

As an anthropologist, our certainty often depends on how stereotypical skeletal remains are, for example, in the expression of traits related to sex, age or ancestry. It doesn’t mean the methods are unreliable if we can’t give a good assessment, it usually means the remains are atypical or show a mixture of traits. Also, time since death has so many variables, it’s a difficult area to assess. These more subjective areas are where we need help — and that help is coming in the form… We now have software into which we can input measurements and get a more objective profile of a decedent.

CODY: Mind you, I’m still waiting to buy “forensic history”, but in your opinion who was the most likely suspect for Jack the Ripper?

MURRAY: In “Forensic History,” I more so discuss the relationships of the cases and the forensic evidence in them than I do the “suspects.” Mainly because we have facts about the evidence, but only theories about the killer (and far too many of them, at that). As I say in the lecture, a whole series could be done about the Ripper murders and the various suspects. Having read many theories, I honestly don’t find any that are so compelling to me as to be definitive. I could spend the next few years reading Ripper books — there are that many out there. In fact, a new theory just came up in the week of this chat (that poet Francis Thompson was the killer). If forced to choose, I guess I’ll go with Kozminski as my prime suspect, but we will never know.

MEL: Have you done a lot of criminal forensics in your career?

MURRAY: I’m not sure what you mean by “criminal forensics” — I am a forensic anthropologist and have participated in many hundreds of forensic investigations over the past 30 years. Most have involved skeletal remains, but others have been dismemberment cases, child abuse deaths, fire deaths, etc. Forensic anthropologists frequently get involved where bone trauma is an issue (i.e. child abuse) or when there is not enough of a body remaining to do a traditional autopsy.

ERIC: Where are Psychiatric – Psychological Forensics taught? Also what about profiling of international leaders? Is this only the work of the CIA?

MURRAY: I don’t know specific schools, but I recommend visiting the website of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences at where you can find a list of accredited forensic programs. I also don’t know who profiles international leaders, but I imagine there are multiple levels of governmental agencies involved.

RON C: How accurate is the TV series “Bones” regarding forensics?

MURRAY: I honestly don’t watch much TV, so I couldn’t tell you. I do know, though, that the Producer is forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Reichs, who also writes many episodes, so I imagine the science is as good as she can make it, given it’s a fictional drama.

LESTAHL: Do you feel that TV programs that solve unbelievably difficult cases in an hour give the public a false sense of the real ability to solve such cases?

MURRAY: Yes, but I also think we’re capable of recognizing that “it’s a show” and in that regard has different goals than real casework. At least I hope that’s the case! Some of the “true crime” shows seem worse at that — these real investigators who come to a town and delve into a cold case and settle it in an hour, even though it was an open case for years. With that said, I support anything that will help close a case. Have you heard of the CSI effect with regard to juries? It’s interesting to think that people know more about forensics (or think they do) from fictional shows than most ever learned about science in school — but I think we’re even educating the perpetrators. In 2015 I wrote a chapter called “Postmortem Trauma and the ‘CSI Effect’: Is TV Making Smarter Criminals?” in the edited volume “Skeletal Trauma Analysis: Case Studies in Context.” As I say repeatedly in the “Trails of Evidence” Great Courses series, I think we are making smarter criminals!

GINA: Care to comment on the Fox Lake situation?

MURRAY: I posted about that case to my professional Facebook page just this week; what a sad, sad situation — what a waste of resources in investigating it (and the pathologist was originally apparently not believed by his own superiors when he suspected suicide). It sounds like the amount of money the officer embezzled was only about $50,000 — was his life worth only that? Or maybe his ego?

As if the good guys didn’t have enough bad PR these days, Gliniewicz goes and does this — and the more that comes out about the case, the worse things seem to get. Threatening the life of another official and now having his mistress marry his own son, who is in the military to get cash from military benefits! It’s sickening. Here’s a link to the latest…

ALAN ROCKER: Do you think that handwriting analysis is any more accurate than, say, astrology?

MURRAY: As I replied to another chat participant, that depends on whether you are talking about graphology (the “assessment” of personality or mood from handwriting — which is bogus) or you are talking about forensic document examination in which signatures are being compared for authenticity (which does have some scientific bases).

GINA: IF Finger print ID is suspect, is it because of technique or the actual ID?

photo of Professor Murray in Guatemala, 2004
Professor Murray on a dig in Guatemala, 2004

MURRAY: I’m not sure I understand the question — but if you’re asking if fingerprints are unique — they are. So if there is sufficient detail and enough of a print surface present, there should be no issue with a fingerprint identification. Even identical twins don’t have identical prints. Partial prints, though, can be problematic.

GENE: Are DNA results regarded as empirical evidence?

MURRAY: Yes, particularly if a full nuclear genetic profile is obtained. Only identical twins would have the same nuclear DNA. Mitochondrial DNA, however, is passed from a mother to all of her offspring (we do not get mitochondrial DNA from our father), so everyone in a female’s line will share that. Keep in mind that DNA is often just one piece of evidence in a case — one would hope that a case had multiple lines of evidence leading to the same conclusion.

KMBURLEY: How accurately can forensics determine time of death?

MURRAY: Due to the large numbers of variables involved, assessments of the postmortem interval can be complex. The accuracy depends — in my opinion — on two things: How long the individual has been deceased, and how much is known about the environmental conditions where the death/decomposition occurred. In general, the closer to the time of death, the more accurate we can be; conversely, the longer since death, the less confident we can be.

JACK HAUTALUOMA: What are the most useful kinds of evidence that the layman would be least aware of? What kinds of evidence are most useful to you in criminal cases?

MURRAY: This is a good question and it would depend a lot on the type of case, but I guess it also depends on how “educated” the layman is (whether professionally educated or “educated” from television shows). I think most people know that our prime sources of evidence are DNA (from a variety of biological sources), fingerprints, blood spatter, fibers, broken glass, etc. — but what always amazes me are the minute bits of evidence that can reveal so much — like pollen… or cut marks on bone (which — in the right hands — can indicate how many teeth-per-inch a saw blade had). I’d have to say the minute details are what impress me most.

BOB SMITH: I am interested in learning more about emerging technologies in forensic science; Nanotechnologies and the like. What does the future hold?

MURRAY: They are working now on nanoparticles present in fingerprints that could tell more about a person (like drug use — and I don’t mean the presence of cocaine on the finger, but its — or its metabolites’ — presence in the body). Also I’ve heard talk of being able to tell how old a blood sample is by the nano-features (if that’s a word) of its surface, using atomic force microscopy. These aren’t areas with which I’m familiar, but it is really interesting.

Isotopes in bone and tooth are being compared to what is known about worldwide groundwater isotopes, in an effort to tell a person’s geographic origin. Cool stuff!

THOMAS PAWLICK: For most ballistics testing, a slug or part of one is needed. What other ways can help trace a weapon or ammunition if all that’s present are some bits or pieces of a slug, minus the rifling markings?

MURRAY: I don’t know the answer to this — just saw my former student the other day, who is now our local firearms and toolmark expert — so I wish I could have asked him this question for you. There are so many fields in forensics — I am expert on but a few — and while I do teach the basics (including in “Trails of Evidence”), it’s difficult to stay up on the latest technologies in all of them.

LASLOO: Are there any examples in cases you have been apart of… that were really amazing? That is, with what would seem little to go on… new/advanced forensic science was able to be used to really deduce a whole load of new facts and/or solve a case that really seemed unsolvable otherwise?

MURRAY: Another good question. I have to say that even though forensic anthropology is “all about bones,” there’s so much variation in the casework, it can amaze me, even after 30 years. A few specific “amazing” cases come to mind — I examined the remains of three women, each case about a month apart, and began to suspect a serial killer was involved (and reported that to the coroner of the county).

After a thorough exam of the bones of one of the victims, whose skeletonized remains had been found in the woods, I saw one tiny, near-microscopic, nick on just one of the vertebrae of the neck. I said that I thought her throat had been slashed. The perpetrator had been burning all his victims, and these remains also showed evidence of burning — but even the pathologist questioned why I thought that one tiny nick (among many surface anomalies on the bones) was evidence of a knife wound.

When the perpetrator was caught and he talked about the killings, he said — of the four related cases — in that one case, he slit the victim’s throat. (He was caught in the killing of the fourth, so I didn’t examine her; she was within a few hours since death when he was caught.) Another amazing case for me was one where we got a woman identified nearly 40 years after she went missing — that one is covered in the “Forensic Art” section of “Trails of Evidence”.

PROTRAINER: Minimum education to do your work?

MURRAY: My work as a board-certified forensic anthropologist currently requires a PhD. One needs the PhD before sitting for the American Board of Forensic Anthropology’s board exam. There are people practicing forensic anthropology at the Master’s level — and probably some out there practicing with a Bachelor’s Degree.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has created the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) that are currently developing subcommittees to create both methodology and training standards for all of the forensic sciences. Most people would be surprised that doesn’t already exist, but forensic science grew in popularity and use so quickly in the past 30 years that it has resulted in a real hodge-podge of qualifications and methods that need to be standardized.

MATT REDLE: What improvements would you like to see in the pattern evidence fields?

MURRAY: I think the biggest improvements are the ongoing use of lasers and computers in assessing, preserving, and analyzing patterns. I don’t know what is on the horizon, though. Also, the ability to use 3-D printing to preserve evidence allows it to be shared and analyzed by multiple investigators at the same time. Interesting stuff!

Video graphic about the Body Farm

 JAMES MEYER: How do investigators avoid cognitive biases such as confirmation bias, anchoring or recency bias in their pursuit of the truth?

MURRAY: Because we are human (as investigators, victims, and witnesses), I don’t think anyone can completely disengage from their biases. With regard to investigations, we must try to blind ourselves to our preconceived notions (confirmation bias), as difficult as that can be. (I am reminded of the defense’s closing argument in the Grisham novel/movie “A Time to Kill”.) In some regard, I guess the CSI Effect I’ve written about in this chat is a form of anchoring bias, would you agree? I guess the exclusion of mention of past crimes in a trial is an attempt to thwart recency bias. I will say that forensic investigators aren’t necessarily trained in avoiding bias. I try to avoid it by asking anyone who brings a case to me NOT to tell me “what they think happened” or “who the victim probably is”, so that my assessments can be as independent as possible, but I don’t know if that’s the case with all investigators (nor do I know that it avoids bias!).

JUDY: In a recent crime show, lab testers of a splinter stated that they can determine the species of the tree and the exact tree the splinter came from. Is this possible?

MURRAY: We have a wood expert at our local crime lab, and he’s quite good. I believe a splinter would have to be analyzed beyond microscopy (i.e. chemical/physical/molecular methods) in order to speciate. Here’s an NPR story about wood analysis from splinters; interesting! As for which tree, I say no way!

LAWRENCE WEBB: How does forensics play into the rash of shootings and murders by police who shoot to kill as their first step rather than as the last resort? Is there adequate evidence to support proper action against these crimes by law enforcement officers?

MURRAY: I think/hope the key here is unbiased and neutral investigations of these incidents. I am of the opinion that the tensions are so high on both sides in these recent rash of incidents — on the part of both the police and the victims (especially minority victims) that neither side is acting in a conscientious manner at this point. Both sides in these conflicts are so highly charged that they are not acting rationally; fear runs high and it can cloud judgment.

I do think the body cameras are key components in these cases, as they hopefully provide an accurate account that neither party can taint in its favor (which I’m sure happened often in the past).

LEA: Do you think ‘shows’ such as CSI help the public view of forensic science or hurt.

MURRAY: That’s a mixed bag, for sure. There is actually a term “CSI Effect” that refers to how members of the public (especially jurors) have such an “awareness” of forensics now that they have higher expectations of evidence (when on juries) than is warranted. They expect each side to use certain techniques (that may or may not be possible) and are dissatisfied when certain evidence is not present or utilized.

On the positive side, it has increased an interest in science and math in younger students, and that can never be a bad thing!

CAROLYN CARRUTH: Does this type of showings increase the criminal mind’s way of covering up evidence possibilities?

MURRAY: I’m not sure I understand your question. If you mean are the TV shows making smarter criminals, I wrote a book chapter this year indicating that is my belief. Some people who saw “Trails of Evidence” (my first Great Courses series) were critical of my reoccurring saying, “Here I go, making smarter criminals again” as I explained a variety of crime-solving methods — but I do think it’s really true, and my book chapter “Postmortem Trauma and the ‘CSI Effect& Is TV Making Smarter Criminals?” in the edited volume “Skeletal Trauma Analysis: Case Studies in Context” documents one case where the perpetrators referred repeatedly to TV forensics when they were trying to rid themselves of a body!

photo of Professor Murray in Guatemala, 2004
Professor Murray on a Dig in Guatemala, 2004

BOB: Outside of DNA have there been any improvements in the way way we can evaluate evidence?

MURRAY: Yes, lots — so many that I can’t begin to address them here. My final lecture in “Forensic History” references advances in fingerprints, and how computerization has really revolutionized so much of what we do in forensics (as in other facets of our lives).

ERIC: Why are lie detectors still used in many venues?

MURRAY: Lie detectors aren’t accepted in most courts (unless both parties agree to it), but they are still used — in my opinion — to “trick” or “coerce” people who are being questioned about an issue/event. I wish that wasn’t allowed, but you may be surprised at what is allowed during police questioning of suspects. I have a couple of lectures about that in “Forensic History” and also talk about that in my book “Overturning Wrongful Convictions.”

ANNE: Is DNA always infallible proof of guilt or innocence?

MURRAY: DNA doesn’t “prove” guilt or innocence so much as indicate the source of evidence. There are lots of ways someone’s DNA can get somewhere — without that person even actually ever being present! Such as transfer of hairs by an intermediate vector (person or other animal). DNA, like other evidence should be part of a big picture of evidence that tells a story sufficient to convince a jury of the merits of the case.

TERRENCE LENAHAN: Your view of the program CSI Miami.

MURRAY: Sorry, never seen it!

MROBINSP: At any time in her career did Dr. Murray encounter the work of Sir Bernard Spillsbury a great British ME in the early to mid 1900s…if so was there any case that made her say “Wow!!!” M.P. Robinson

MURRAY: I’m getting old, but I’m not that old! (Ha!) Oh, you mean in my work, have I seen HIS work? It’s actually been more through my teaching that I have read about Spillsbury — he is an icon, and always seemed to be willing to go out on a limb. But there have been criticisms of him in terms of his independence, showmanship, and unwillingness to share with others (wouldn’t train students).

Still, he set the stage for thinking outside the box with regard to forensic pathology, and such thinking is necessary to advance the field.

WHERE CAN I GET THAT PHOTO…: Where can I get the photo processing software they use on NCIS? If only Photoshop was that Good!

MURRAY: Don’t know, and don’t even know if it’s a real software or just a TV fantasy! Sorry. When you see some of these things on television, it doesn’t even mean they are real or existing technology. Are they pointing to the future, a la Jules Verne? I don’t know, but it’s interesting.

BRADLEY STEEG: RE: Lecture 24 “The Past, Present, and Future of Forensics” The United States and Europe are currently funding human brain research (US Brain Initiative, EU Brain Project). In a broad sense, we may be able to ‘read’ minds fairly soon through brain imaging, meaning we will have highly accurate polygraph testing. It looks like they will be able to distinguish between a reliable memory and a fabricated memory where the brain fills in the blanks. In fact, DARPA is even working on projects to restore lost memories. Is it too early — or too expensive — for forensic science to take live brain imaging projects seriously yet?

MURRAY: Wow, cool and scary at the same time! I think the biggest hurdle here would be how creepy many people would find this concept with regard to their rights.

ALAN ROCKER: I take it you know Kathy Reichs? Forensic pathology seems to attract female practitioners; don’t you find it gross?

MURRAY: Yes, Kathy and I are friends — she’s a wonderful anthropologist, writer, and person! You are correct there are a lot of female forensic anthropologists, and it’s interesting. Many of us have discussed that phenomenon. As for it being gross, it definitely can be gross. However (not to be sexist), I could argue that females have been the ones in society throughout much of history who handle a lot of the “gross and messy stuff” — from birth and baby diapers, to sick people and the care of the dead. Many ladies seem to have a pretty good constitution for handling things that are unpleasant. I also teach gross anatomy, and I find that the females are just as capable of handling that unsettling setting as the males. There are also more females going into the funerary sciences these days, too, and many in forensic pathology. Interesting.

Professor Elizabeth A. Murray is a forensic anthropologist and also Professor of Biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph, where she teaches doctoral-level human gross anatomy and undergraduate-level anatomy and physiology, as well as forensic science.
Her lecture series Forensic History: Crimes, Frauds, and Scandals is available to stream on the Great Courses Plus.