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Forensic anthropology involves the identification of an individual. As such, it can be considered a medico-legal subspecialty of both physical anthropology and forensic science. Forensic anthropology focuses on the study of human osteology in order to make a positive identification, while physical anthropology focuses on the study of our species in terms of primate evolution, human genetics, and biological variations. A difference between physical anthropology and forensic anthropology is the age of the human remains. Physical anthropology is interested in all ages, while the focus of forensic anthropology is specific to human remains that are less than 50 years old. A second difference between physical anthropology and forensic anthropology is that while each analyzes human remains, forensic anthropology does so in order to meet a specific objective of identifying the dead through biological characteristics and, if possible, determining the circumstances of unexplained death. Forensic anthropology focuses on differences in the human skeleton to determine specific physical traits, such as age, sex, height, weight, health, anomalies, and ethnic background.
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These differences came to light particularly in 1972 when the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) established a physical anthropology section. Membership in this section entailed exclusively forensic applications of anthropology rather than all anthropology in general; the 14 members in 1972 became known as forensic anthropologists. This led to the establishment in 1977 of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA) (www.theabfa.org/index.html) with sponsorship by the AAFS and the Forensic Sciences Foundation.
Origin of Forensic Science
Forensic sciences were practiced before they were identified as forensic anthropology or even forensic science. Forensic science was first documented in France in 1910 with Dr. Edmond Locard’s establishment of a center where scientists studying biology, physics, and medicine came together to examine evidence for criminal investigations. This group analyzed materials and shared resources in an attempt to reconstruct crime scenes. Eventually known as a criminalistics laboratory, or crime lab, this model was followed in 1914 by the city of Montreal. The center in Montreal followed Locard’s philosophy, called Locard’s exchange principle, the foundation of the field of forensic science. Montreal’s center was run by a physician and thus became known as a medicolegal lab, a subspecialty of medicine. The structure of this model lab became popular, and in 1923, the first lab based on this model was established in the United States by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. In 1932, the newly established Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) set up its own lab, which could be accessed nationwide, although unlike the lab in France, contributions were minimal from different areas of science such as biology, chemistry, and physics.
Over the last 100 years, physical anthropologists have assisted with medico-legal investigations. Many physical anthropologists, especially from the Smithsonian Institute, acted as advisors to medico-legal officials through published articles and law enforcement bulletins during the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1960s, Lawrence Angel joined the Smithsonian staff and continued as a consultant for the FBI, including the launching of a training program for the forensic applications of skeletal biology.
The Need for Forensic Anthropology
There are five main objectives in forensic anthropology: (1) Determine ancestry, sex, age, and living height; (2) attempt to identify the nature and causative agent if evidence of traumatic injury to human bone exists; (3) render a determination of postmortem interval; (4) assist in locating and recovering remains so that all evidence relevant to a forensic investigation is recovered; (5) provide information useful in obtaining a positive identification of deceased persons (Byers, 2002, p. 1).
Forensic anthropology is needed to restore names and identities to unknown human remains from murder, mass disaster, or other found human remains. Forensic anthropologists assist both in the identification of bones and also in the recovery of bodies. Besides identifying the bones, forensic anthropologists also analyze trauma to the bone in order to gain necessary knowledge on the cause and manner of death. Nafte (2000) asserted that identifying remains may actually prevent the time and expense of a large-scale legal investigation. Forensic anthropologists not only process and analyze human remains in a laboratory but also are called on to assist in locating and recovering remains as well as to interpret any ante-, peri-, or postmortem (pre, during, or after death) movements or modifications of the remains.
Development of Forensic Anthropology
Forensic anthropology can be divided into three time periods, according to Rhine (1998): formative (early 1800s–1938), consolidation (1939–1971), and modern (1972 onward). Prior to the 1970s, those physical anthropologists working particularly with the medico-legal and forensic aspects of anthropology had no official name. The father of American forensic anthropology is Thomas Dwight, a Harvard anatomy professor in the late 19th century who published The Identification of the Human Skeleton, a Medicolegal Study in 1878. In his book, Dwight discussed how an examination of human bones could lead to the determination of gender and stature of the remains.
During the formative period (early 1800s–1938), one of the first known cases occurred. In 1849, Dr. Jeffries Wyman of Harvard University identified human remains in order to help solve the death of a prominent Boston-area doctor, George Parkman. In this case, Dr. John White Webster, a colleague of Dr. Wyman, was accused of the murder based on evidence that on November 23, 1849, Parkman went to claim money owed to him by Webster. This date was the last time anyone saw Parkman alive. Less than a week later, a janitor at the Harvard Medical School called the police on discovery of what appeared to be human remains in a stone vault underneath Webster’s office. While officers suspected these approximately 150 bones, some of which were burned, and set of false teeth belonged to Parkman, the police left it up to a team of doctors and dentists to prove it in court. On examination, the doctors were able to testify that these remains matched a person of Parkman’s age, build, and height. Three hours of deliberation led to a guilty verdict for Webster.
More forensic anthropological activity was recorded during the consolidation period (1939–1971), such as the identification of servicemen killed on the battlefields during World War II and the Korean War. The work of the physical anthropologists called on by the United States Army during World War II for the identification of skeletal remains for repatriation led to the establishment of the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) at the Hickman Air Force Base in Hawaii in 1947.
The third, or modern period, which began approximately 20 years ago, is when the application of forensic anthropology to the investigation of human rights violations increased dramatically, mostly due to the reinstatement of democratic governments along with higher levels of public awareness and social action. Requests for such action have been from countries such as those in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. One team in particular demand is the Forensic Anthropology Team of Argentina (EAAF), which has established its own precedent by becoming involved in other missions worldwide; this team is very much in demand due to their expertise, particularly in presenting evidence for war tribunals.
Methods in Forensic Anthropology
The process of forensic anthropology can be described, according to Mercedes Doretti of the EAAF, as three parts: interviews, excavation, and analysis (Burns, 1999). However, interviews are less likely to be conducted by forensic anthropologists as the bones are often already decomposed and witnesses are not easily located. In addition, many forensic anthropologists prefer to work with as little preconceived knowledge as possible to avoid tainting their conclusions and findings. The three parts identified by Doretti can be redefined into two types of methods: data gathering (interviews and excavation) and data analysis (analysis). The data is gathered from skeletal remains, while the analysis answers questions posed by forensic-anthropology protocol.
Data is gathered using four techniques: anthroposcopic, osteometric, chemical, and histological. Anthroposcopic data is gathered visually, including through the use of X-rays, and involves such characteristics as ancestry, sex, age, and stature. Osteometric data involves the measurement of human bone on an objective scale using calipers or an osteometric board in an attempt to quantify many of the anthroposcopic characteristics. Chemical data is gathered through the examination of chemical makeup of certain structures of the skeleton, including mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and associated matter such as the ground beneath the skeleton. Histological data is gathered through the study of the microstructure of teeth and bone.
There are five methods to analyze the data from the skeleton: decision table, range chart, index, discriminant function, and regression equation. The last two methods come from statistics.
A decision table helps the researcher judge the importance of conflicting information to arrive at a single conclusion. In a decision table, options are listed across the top of the table, while characteristics for determining these options are listed down the left-hand side. A forensic anthropologist marks the columns where characteristics observed indicate agreement with the option at the top. The name of the column (option) with the most marks is the one most likely to be correct.
A range chart provides multiple ranges of estimates so that a central tendency can be determined. To use a range chart, a forensic anthropologist charts the ranges of features observed. Where the most overlap on the chart occurs is the data range that is most likely to be correct. These are particularly useful for parameters in which multiple sources of data are encountered such as time since death and age at death.
An index is a method to standardize skeletal measures for two dimensions. This method was developed so that numerical expressions of the shape of a structure can be compared between two groups. An index is a simple yet powerful statistical method for quantifying anthroposcopic traits. When two measurements express visually identifiable characteristics, the forensic anthropologist will divide one into the other, multiple the quotient by 100, and arrive at an index.
A discriminant function is a method for calculating a numerical expression of shape that can be used when more than two measurements are available. A forensic anthropologist would use a discriminant function whenever there are discrete categories to determine to assist in distinguishing between two or more predetermined groups. These might consist of gender or hair color.
A regression equation is a method by which one value can be predicted from the values of other measurements.
While regression equations are included in the five methods to analyze data from skeletons, these are often incorrect because they do not account for the increasingly unknown nature of points away from the middle line of a set of values, and they do not consider that other samples might yield other values.
Facial reconstruction is a subset of the methods of forensic anthropology. In facial reconstruction, the forensic anthropologist works to recreate the facial characteristics to assist in identification. This is considered a last resort, one to use only if a search of missing persons’ files has not revealed a potential match. Traditionally, this was done manually by molding and casting the original skull, applying spacers to indicate the amount of tissue thickness at various places on the facial skeleton, and filling in the areas between and around these spacers. Today, preferably, computer software is used to produce faces on images of the skull. However, in other cases, artists drawings, restoration of disrupted or damaged tissue put back on the skull, or photo/portrait superimposition is also used. There are still problems found by forensic anthropologists and other practitioners such as predicting individual characteristics not apparent on the skull regardless of the method used.
There are three software programs commonly used: CARES (computer assisted reconstruction and enhancement system), FACE (composite picture software), and Faces (face recognition software); each of which uses radiographs or photographs of faces or skulls, which are then digitized. Using banks of stored features from both cadavers and living samples using magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) and computerized tomography (CT) scans, a face is then electronically restored or reconstructed.
Forensic anthropologists should be familiar with every feature of the human skeleton, including the range of variation between individuals and the differences between human and nonhuman bones. The familiarity is needed to assist in the critical matter of identifying human skeletal remains. The bones to be familiar with include the 29 bones of the head (cranium, inner ear, mandible, and hyoid) and the 177 bones of the postcranial skeleton below the head. This number varies, however, based on age and other circumstances, all of which the forensic anthropologist needs to be aware of. In particular, a child’s skeleton will have more bones since not all bones found in a younger body will have fused together to create the bones found in the adult skeleton. Forensic anthropologists need to be familiar with the landmarks and features, growth and development of each of these bones and their components to help determine age and other characteristics of the skeleton.
The postcranial skeleton can be further subdivided into the torso and limbs. The torso includes the ribs, vertebra, scapulae, clavicles, sternum, pelvis, and sacrum. The limbs include the arms (the humerus, radius, ulna) and legs (the femur, tibia, and fibula). The pelvis, composed of three portions (ilium, ischium, and pubis), contains information critical to determination of age at death or gender in adults.
When referring to bones in the human skeleton, it is necessary to use specific terminology to assist others in locating the same bones one is referencing. This is done by thinking of the skeleton standing (or lying on its back) with arms at the sides, palms forward, and thumbs to the outside. This position was chosen, in part, due to the fact that in this position none of the bones cross each other, and it is possible to consistently describe the relationships between bones (Adams, 2007).
Identification occurs after the forensic anthropologist has gathered all of the data and analyzed this data through various methods. The identification is rarely definitive but rather provides a guide or range from which identification can be drawn. As time passes, modeling and remodeling of bones within the skeleton records events in the person’s life such as growth, disease, and environmental change, providing a lasting record of past events, lifestyle habits, and occupational stress. Earlier in life, generally within the first three decades of life, the growth and maturation of the human skeleton is most reliable for its relation to the time and sequence of age change as it relates to sex and race differences.
Definitive identification is rare based solely on the skeleton as there are external factors that can affect the records stored in the bones, for example, nutritional deficiencies, diseases, medications, pathological conditions, anomalies, and more. The markers on the bones indicating occupational stress provide an additional means of identifying a person from a skeleton, which is particularly helpful in aiding law enforcement officials in their search for a missing person. The most important details in the identification of an individual person occur in the head: eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.
How Bones Change
Though living bone is mainly inorganic, it is a dynamic tissue that is capable of responding to a wide variety of stimuli. As such, it is in a constant state of change. Modeling is the change, or growth and development, of living bone that takes place from approximately the third intrauterine month to approximately 25 to 30 years of age. Remodeling, or changes in the density, shape, and size of bone, takes place throughout the person’s life. Remodeling is due to factors such as aging, exercise, diet, injury, trauma, disease, and occupational stress. In particular, there can be lesions due to occupational stress. These lesions manifest in four ways: modifications to areas of insertion, osteophytosis, discrete markers, and stress fractures.
The forensic anthropologist needs to be aware of the different responses of bone to stress during and after life. The type and patterning of a fracture can help establish the sequence of damage to skeletal material.
The forensic anthropologist can estimate the age of the decedent through knowledge of changes to the skeleton that occur both during growth and deterioration. There are several methods to determine age at death that require special instruments such as cortical bone loss, counts of bone histological structures, and the Gustafson method on teeth. Byers (2002) asserted that the “methods for determining age are not accurate enough to be usable in forensic situations” (p. 192) although the age for individuals under the age of 12 years is said to be estimable from the lengths of the long bones combined with the development and eruption of teeth and fusion of primary and secondary ossification centers. In adolescents, the forensic anthropologist can also estimate the age of the skeleton at death through the amount of union in various epiphyses. In adults, the forensic anthropologist needs to be aware of changes in pubic face, auricular surface, the sternal ends of ribs, and the amount of suture closure in the skull. In general, the age of a skeleton is more accurately determined the younger the decedent was at time of death.
In determining gender, the statistics are generally higher than for most other characteristics. There is a 50% chance of a correct guess without other information available. The pelvis is where the strongest and most accurate indication of male versus female is found as the pelvis of a woman is generally broader than that of a male. When examining the pelvis, particular attention should be paid to the bone of the anterior pelvic area (the pubis) as the lower margin of the pubis forming the border of the subpubic angle is wider in a female than a male. This margin is determined using the ischium-pubic index, the only commonly used metric method for distinguishing sexes. If the pubis is missing, then the skull difference can assist in determining the gender, but there is a certain amount of overlap in the middle of the size differences.
The stature of a skeleton is determined by adding together the measurements of many bones in the skeleton. It is very important to obtain as many bones as possible and to correctly identify each bone. The bones measured to determine the stature include the skull and the combined heights of the vertebrae, the femur and tibia, and articulated calcaneous. Although it is less accurate, forensic anthropologists commonly calculate stature based on the lengths of the long limb bones solely: the humerus, ulna, radius, femur, tibia, and fibula. Because it has been documented that persons lose stature with age, estimates of living heights among persons determined to be 45 years or older at death need to be adjusted downward.
When determining the race or ancestry of a skeleton, the forensic anthropologist depends on the skull. The skull has the most traits to use in determining the race or ancestry. Without a skull, there are a limited number of postcranial skeleton traits to use. This categorization is often the most difficult and least precise due to problems of inconsistency between racial categories. Forensic anthropologists depend on the categories for race/ancestry most widely used by law enforcement agencies: Caucasian, African, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic.
When examining the skeleton, the forensic anthropologist often can estimate the handedness of the decedent by comparing the right- and left-upper-limb bones. The side with the largest and most modified bones is generally the dominant side.
Basis of Examination and Evaluation to Identify the Dead
Krogman and Iscan (1986) provided a guideline that forensic anthropologists follow today when examining and evaluating to identify the dead. Krogman and Iscan suggest beginning with “the big four”—stature, age at time of death, sex, and race/ethnicity. Once this information is determined as well as possible, the forensic anthropologist should then continue with the “accessory” information— weight/body build, duration of interment, cause of death if registered in the bones, and a final registry of miscellaneous details of individuality to assist in identifying the decedent such as fractures, amputations, and so on.
The Human Genome (DNA)
The human genome provides the ability to chart any person’s genetic makeup. However, particularly for forensic anthropologists, this is not always possible to obtain. When it is obtainable, often it is the forensic biologist who processes the DNA, not the forensic anthropologist. The human genome, or DNA, is, according to Bass and
Jefferson (2007), the “gold standard” for making a positive identification. However, they note, this is not always the fastest or most efficient method to obtain a positive identification. There are still older methods that are much faster and more affordable than DNA testing. Advances in the analysis of DNA extraction from archaeological bone allows for personal identification. However, the DNA preserved from crime scenes or other evidence may be affected by human errors that will affect the quality of the DNA, degrade the DNA, or be in minute quantities. As the DNA falls apart due to degradation, the pieces become smaller and smaller, which causes DNA analysis to become harder and harder.
Newer DNA analysis is based on DNA (such as mitochondria) that is not located in the cell’s nucleus as it was in the past. Cells have organs just as bodies do; these organs are called organelles, existing in the cell but outside of the nucleus. Select organelles have their own packets of DNA, such as the mitochondria. This DNA, called mtDNA, is carried on the mother’s side and survives in numerous quantities in hairs, bone, and teeth, according to Houck (2007).
Other evidence gathered can be from the location itself, scraps of clothing or human remains beyond the skeleton, and interviews with people. In collecting evidence through interviews, one needs to be sensitive to the culture of those being addressed as this can vary from place to place, culture to culture, and country to country.
There are four major steps in collecting evidence: location, mapping, excavation (if needed), and retrieval. The forensic anthropologist is not always involved with these steps although it is helpful and often time and cost saving to have the forensic anthropologist involved from the start rather than relying on the findings of others. Locating the remains is the first step of the process. Next is mapping, which includes drawings, photographs, videos, and other methods of recording the location and the process itself from locating to retrieving to relocating the remains to the forensic anthropologist’s laboratory. The excavation includes searching and collecting the bones and other materials considered necessary for the forensic anthropologist’s work, while the retrieval includes packing and transporting the materials to the forensic anthropologist’s laboratory.
It is helpful, from the start, to make an inventory of what is found. This inventory will help establish the number of sets of human remains. If there is more than one left femur, other limb bones, or skulls, then this is a general indication of collocation (arrangement) of more than one human skeleton, or commingling. Additional vertebra, ribs, or sesamoid bones (bones that grow in tendons) are not indicators of commingling as it is not abnormal for an individual to have one or more of these. The recording of the process, along with the proper usage of methods of collection and retrieval, will enhance the reliability and success with which the case can be resolved.
Interpreting and Applying Evidence
When interpreting evidence to assist in making an identification, attempts made by humans to disguise or destroy remains can cause problems. Problems can also be caused by any other postmortem damage from a number of sources, including human dismemberment to prevent identification or to show disregard for the victim, and nonhuman animals; heat such as fire; and weathering, burial, and water. The effects of fire include charring, cracking, discoloration, warping, and shrinkage, while weathering—due mainly to sunlight—manifests itself through cracking and warping. Burial has similar effects to weathering and low-temperature burning, whereas water causes abrading and scattering of skeletal elements. The overlap of effects can also cause problems in interpretation for cause of death or postmortem damage that has occurred.
There are three types of bone disease (deformative, lytic, and proliferative) as well as four types of skeletal anomalies (accessory ossicles, nonfusion anomalies, accessory foramina, and miscellaneous anomalies) that the forensic anthropologist needs to be aware of to better help determine what has happened to a bone.
One of the main interpretations by the forensic anthropologist is the manner of death, or the manner in which a person died. There are five recognized manners of death: homicide, suicide, accident, natural, and unknown. It is the forensic anthropologist’s job to avoid as much as possible an unknown cause of death, unless there is insufficient evidence to prove one of the other four manners of death.
While determining the type of bone injury, the forensic anthropologist should also attempt to determine the timing of the bone injury: during life, or antemortem trauma; around the time of death, or perimortem trauma; or damage done after death, or postmortem damage. This timing will help establish if the bone trauma discovered is the cause of death.
The bones can tell a lot about the cause of death. There are four types of bone trauma that can indicate the type of death: blunt, sharp, projectile, and miscellaneous. In the analysis of a blunt force bone trauma, the forensic anthropologist must start with a complete description of the injury, including the type (fracture or infraction), the bone affected, which side of the bone, and the placement in the bone of the injury. Next, the forensic anthropologist should attempt to determine the size, shape, and weight of the causative instrument. Of particular note, a fracture of the hyoid bone is the main osteological consequence of death by strangulation, which is caused by hanging, ligature, or manual strangulation. Sharp trauma results from narrowly focused dynamic compression forces applied to the surface of a bone, such as evidenced in punctures, incisions, and clefts. A projectile bone trauma needs to be analyzed by a forensic anthropologist who understands a number of characteristics of firearms and ammunition such as size (e.g., caliber gauge), velocity, and bullet construction. The forensic anthropologist, when examining a gunshot wound to the bone, should also determine, to the best of his or her ability and knowledge, the causative weapon, the placement of the firearm, and any other information that can be accurately determined.
The forensic anthropologist should create a report that is stated clearly. The report should be generated after careful examination, research, and reflection and based on notes taken throughout the process. The length of time it takes to create a report depends on the complexity of the case. Regardless, the forensic anthropologist’s report should provide as much detail and precise data as possible at the time of writing, although modifications for further clarification can be made if needed. This report “records physical observations on the remains, identifies important biological characteristics, and identifies and differentiates changes in the remains due to natural and cultural forces” in a way that is understandable to the medico-legal officer in charge (Pickering & Bachman, 1997, p. 35). The report should be presented in two parts. The first part of the report should be approximately one page in length and should briefly describe the results in a readable form to the nonforensic anthropologist and include a description of methods used and discuss details of the results obtained from the analysis.
The second part of the report consists of six sections. Part 1 presents background, including names, dates, and places as they apply to the case, including how the forensic anthropologist was summoned, what was done prior to the summoning of the forensic anthropologist, and who was present during the analyses. In Part 2, the general condition of soft tissue that is present and the state of preservation of osteological material along with any photos of the body, which are included as an appendix to the report, can be referenced here. Part 3 is a complete inventory of osteological and odontological remains, including the number of individuals present. Part 4 presents each of the four aspects of demography (ancestry, sex, age at death, and stature) in separate subsections that fully describe how these characteristics were determined. Part 5 explains antemortem, perimortem, and postmortem injuries using photographs, line drawings, and other supportive material. Part 6 includes any recommendations for further testing outside the realm of the forensic anthropologist, which can include searches of missing persons’ files or the names of ethnic enclaves to approach for information on the decedent. Appendices can include supportive photographs and tables.
1948 was the turning point in the United States for the forensic anthropologist to be accepted by the legal system as an expert witness. Today, forensic anthropologists are being asked to offer expert testimony for both prosecuting and defense attorneys.
A biological profile is the information presented by the forensic anthropologist as testimony in a court of law. The human skeleton or other human remains are not part of an exhibit in a court of law. Therefore, a well-documented analysis or conclusion with verbal testimony, written statements, photographs, and slides are the supporting facts and exhibits in the court of law.
The forensic anthropologist must always be certain, whether in the report or when testifying as an expert witness, to present the data and opinion honestly. Particularly in court, this must be done so as to ensure that the judicial process is not affected by the forensic anthropologist’s pre-
sentation of the data and opinion. It is imperative for the forensic anthropologist to differentiate between evidence or data and opinion or interpretation. This evidence-opinion dichotomy is one of the most important distinctions for a forensic anthropologist to make before presenting findings for others’ use.
There are three types of opinions a forensic anthropologist may form: speculation, possible, and probable. Speculation is based on few or no data and should be given only if specifically asked and never in a written form. A possible opinion is one that is based on a characteristic or event that is possible but is too unlikely to be taken seriously. A probable opinion is one with the highest level of certainty,
Ongoing Advances in Modern Forensic Anthropology
In 1986, the Forensic Anthropology Data Bank was created at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to help identify the race or ancestry of a skeleton. The Forensic Anthropology Data Bank contains measurements and observations of thousands of individual skeletons analyzed in forensic cases and from museum collections. This vast data helps the forensic anthropologist to detect previously unrealized subtleties. This data bank is the foundation for FORDISC, a computer tool that analyzes these subtleties to confirm or challenge an anthropologist’s findings. FORDISC enables the user to enter measurements from a current case to help estimate sex, ancestry, and stature.
Forensic anthropology has become used more for identifying victims of current disasters, such as 9/11, and mass disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Forensic anthropology has also become used more and more as a way to gather evidence of victims who can no longer speak, those who are dead—such as in cases of human rights violations worldwide. Forensic anthropologists are stepping outside serving not only the community in which they work but also serving internationally, traveling to large-scale conflicts to work with governments.
Future Use of Forensic Anthropology
Forensic anthropologists are being called on more and more to assist in the identification of victims of homicides, mass disasters, and political atrocities (Camenson, 2001). As the methods to identify human remains become more accurate and exacting, older cases will be reopened for further analysis by forensic anthropologists to assist in solving cold cases.
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