Nov. 20, 2009
SHSU Media Contacts: Bruce Erickson
Celebrating the one-year anniversary of its opening last month, theSoutheast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility, also commonly referred to as STAFS, has already begun providing a valuable service to the people of Texas.
After sheriff’s deputies discovered human bones scattered around private property in Houston County recently, they turned to "the body farm” for help.
Sam Houston State University and Huntsville are home to one of only four such facilities in the United States.
Joan Bytheway, a forensic anthropologist and director of the facility, along with volunteers from the university, helped law enforcement officers search for and recover the skeletal remains that were later identified as those of Rebecca Kay Taylor.
Death is a daunting topic for most people, but for Bytheway, her fellow scientists, investigators and students at STAFS, it is the topic they live and breathe everyday.
Their mission, said Bytheway, “is to expand our knowledge of the forensic sciences and to answer very difficult questions. Many times those questions are ‘who is this victim, how, when and where did he or she die.’”
“The answers are important to families, to society, to science and to justice,” said Bytheway, who is also a professor in the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State.
The Applied Forensic Science Facility is a project of the College of Criminal Justice.
The other facilities are located in Tennessee, North Carolina, and at Texas State University in San Marcos.
The Southeast Texas facility is located a few miles from Huntsville in nine acres of secluded piney woods forest. It includes a new building that, inside, would pass for a typical medical examiner’s office and autopsy suite.
Its important features include a large walk-in freezer and cooler that can accommodate dozens of cadavers, a necropsy suite with digital x-ray equipment, electronic microscopes and a room with 288 custom-built cubicles to accommodate sets of human skeletal remains.
The remains are critical to teaching, research and specific investigations.
“For anthropologists, research that leads to scientifically accepted methods for determining biological identification has previously been conducted on skeletal collections that are more than 100 years old,” said Bytheway.
“The human body of today is different from the body of 100 years ago because of diet, access to better medical care and lifestyle.”
“We need contemporary remains so that we can make better comparisons and be more accurate in our analyses. They will help us identify victims more accurately, along with the facts associated with their deaths.”
The facility also includes a secure and well-fenced outdoor facility with clearly marked plots in which scientists and graduate students are conducting experiments using donated cadavers.
Bytheway emphasized that the Sam Houston State facility is used to do applied research, as well as teach students, professional forensic analysts and police authorities to properly process crime scenes, identify victims and process clues and evidence as to time and nature of death.
“We currently have half a dozen experiments underway related to decomposition, including an entomological experiment that has already yielded publishable results that can be used as a basis for scientific testimony in court and help establish a more accurate estimate as to time since death specific to the climate of southeast Texas.”
The entomologist who supervised the experiment, Sibyl Rae Bucheli, said entomologists are frequently called to testify in criminal cases.
“Not just in cases of murder,” Bucheli said. “Even in cases of neglect of the young and elderly. Certain species of flies have a very strong preference for sores, gangrenous limbs, and dirty diapers. “
A crime scene police photographer from Houston is conducting an experiment that will help determine whether infrared photography can more effectively capture pictures of tattoos and other body markings over a longer period of time than conventional photography.
A graduate student in anthropology from a local university is collecting data on the effects of scavengers and how they can be expected to disturb a crime scene and a decomposing cadaver.
Professional scientists and investigators can inquire about and submit a research proposal by contacting Bytheway at www.cjcenter.org/stafs/.
By completing CSI courses offered by STAFS and the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas, also headquartered at Sam Houston State, law officers can become certified by the International Association for Identification (IAI) as Crime Scene Investigators and Analysts.
“These courses teach best practices in crime scene investigation. The courses consist of three one-week courses starting with a foundational week and end with an advanced week,” Bytheway said.
The courses, approved by the IAI, are offered in the fall and late spring.
Bytheway said the facility is receiving a steady stream of cadaver donors which will enable an expanded schedule of instruction and research.
“We are so appreciative of the donations we receive. We treat our donated cadavers with the utmost of respect and dignity STAFS covers all costs to the family for finalized donations.”
“Each cadaver will be used in multiple experiments, and instructional situations, such as training forensic analysts and practitioners, students and crime scene investigators,” said Bytheway.
“Our preference is that we can keep and care for the remains indefinitely; we badly need to update the archive of contemporary skeletal remains.”
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