SHSU Announces New Forensic Science Facility

Officials at Sam Houston State University are confident that the university’s new Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility will provide enhanced training and research for crime scene investigation, thereby providing a valuable service to the people of Texas.

But more importantly, according to those involved, the results of studies conducted there could give deceased victims a voice that they might not otherwise have and provide closure for families who have lost loved ones because of traumatic events.

The facility is located in an isolated wooded area northeast of Huntsville surrounded by 247 acres of property belonging to Sam Houston State University. A one-acre plot of land secured by an eight-foot razor fence and privacy slats provides a hands-on lab through which researchers can scientifically study human decomposition after death in the subtropical climate of southeast Texas.

The purpose of studying the process is to better enable law enforcement officials, medical examiners and crime scene investigators to extract evidence, which would lead them to more accurately determine critical information such as timing and circumstances of death.

Bodies will be placed in a variety of settings within the confines of the area and left to decompose. Researchers will then observe and make notations not only about the decomposition process, but also about any impact the environment has on the state of the bodies.

Not only will the facility provide a venue for interdisciplinary research by scientists and criminologists at SHSU, but there will also be opportunities for area law enforcement officials as well as national and international investigators, particularly those from countries where human body research is not allowed.

In addition to studying the effects of decomposition on individual bodies, plans are also being made to use the facility to re-enact mass disasters.

Joan Bytheway, a forensic anthropologist specializing in skeletal analysis who teaches in the university’s forensic science program, spearheads the project, shared by the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Criminal Justice.

Before coming to Sam Houston State, Bytheway was part of an international team that excavated mass graves in Iraq to gather evidence to convict Saddam Hussein of genocide.

“When I went to Iraq, I saw the results of violence on bodies of individuals whose stories would have never been told if we had not been there,” she said.
Sam Houston State University is the fourth university in the nation to have a forensic science facility for the study of human decomposition and the second one in Texas. The other is located at Texas State in San Marcos.

The property where the facility is operating is outside the Huntsville city limits and has been used for many years by SHSU biologists and entomologists to study topics relating to decomposing bodies of animals.

Officials at Sam Houston State have addressed numerous safety issues regarding the new facility and are following standards required by several government and environmental agencies, including the installation of containment ponds to collect any body fluids that might leach from the cadavers.

“We will also require training and testing of all individuals who participate in activities at the facility,” said Bytheway.

Individuals may donate their bodies to the facility, just as they would for scientific or medical studies.

“The bodies will be treated with dignity, and once studies are completed, they will be disposed of according to their wishes as stated before their deaths,” said Bytheway.


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SHSU Media Contacts: Julia May
October 1, 2008
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