STAFS Collaborates on Decomposition Standards

A skull with a butterfly on top.

The Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility (STAFS) will collaborate with two other research centers across the country to develop a standard quantitative method describing the human decomposition process.

The research, funded by the National Institute of Justice, is designed to provide a standard in the forensic discipline that can be used as scientific evidence in court cases. It is part of an initiative by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to standardized procedures and testing in the forensic science field.

“What it will do for the field is to standardize decomposition processes beyond the first 72 hours,” said Dr. Joan Bytheway, Director of STAFS. “We will study post-mortem intervals and clarify if there are regional differences.”

Dr. Joan Bytheway, Director of STAFS
Dr. Joan Bytheway, Director of STAFS
STAFS is one of six “body farms,” in the country, which are used to study forensic anthropology as it pertains to criminal cases and the forensic field. Two other facilities, including the University of Tennessee and Texas State University, also will participate in the study to determine if the decomposition process is different by region or climate. Tennessee has a temperate climate; Texas State is located in a subtropical sub-humid climate; and STAFS is subtropical and humid.

In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report that found serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system and called for major reforms and new research in the field. The NAS recommended rigorous and mandatory certification programs and strong standards and protocols for analyzing evidence. A bill, the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act, which would create national accreditation and certification standards and require forensic examiners to be certified to be eligible for direct or indirect federal funds, is currently pending in Congress.

Law enforcement officer work on a clandestine grave during a training at STAFS
Law enforcement officer work on a clandestine grave during a training at STAFS.
Currently, forensic anthropologists generally rely on qualitative data – descriptions of processes in decomposition -- to determine time of death and the evidence is not often used in court yet because there is no established quantitative data analytic. In an effort to provide a more standardized system, the study will use an existing mathematical formula to determine the stages of decomposition, which assigns scores to measure decomposition in different areas of the body – including head, trunk and limbs – and correlate this data with accumulated degree days (averaging the minimum and maximum daily temperatures) The results will be compared among the three facilities to determine if quantitative approaches need to be modified based on different ecoregions.

The study will include 96 human research subjects – four at each site, four times a year for a two-year period. The study sample will be the largest known-dates-of-death sample ever used in this type of research.

A bone is identified during a training at STAFS.
A bone is identified during a training at STAFS.
STAFS provides ongoing research experiments in many areas of forensics and other sciences, including anthropology, biology and chemistry. Among the other research activities that have taken place are documenting the decomposition process under various conditions, studying the succession of insects at the site, determining if bacterial microbes can be used as an alternative to determine post-mortem interval, and identifying scavenger activities.

STAFS also provide training to professionals in the field, including crime scene investigators, law enforcement, educators and anthropologists. The classes they offer involve hands-on processes, such as blood spatter, pattern evidence, advanced crime scene, entomology, and photography, to name a few.

Logot for the Forensic Anthropology Center.The Anthropology Research Facility (ARF) at the University of Tennessee was the first natural outdoor laboratory to study human decomposition. Established over 30 years ago, the ARF has provided scores of studies that document the decomposition process under varying conditions. Some current decomposition-related research topics include soil microbiology and isotopes, human microbiology, remote sensing of graves and NIJ sponsored research to evaluate the utility of non-human animal models as proxies for human decomposition. Training for law enforcement, medico-legal professionals and students is also provided at the ARF each summer, including Field Methods, Outdoor Recovery, and Scene Documentation.

Logo for The Forensic Anthropology Center.The Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University is a research, teaching, and outreach center within the Department of Anthropology. Established in 2008, FACTS encompasses a large outdoor decomposition facility on Freeman Ranch known as the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF), Like the other facilities, FACTS provides training for law enforcement, medicolegal investigators, and human detection dog handlers in forensic taphonomy, search and recovery of human remains, and forensic anthropological skeletal analysis methods. FACTS personnel also aid in medicolegal death investigations. Current decomposition-related research topics conducted at FARF include examining environmental thresholds that affect the necrobiome, soil microbiology and isotopes, the use of remote aerial vehicles with multispectral cameras to search for human remains, and the effects of vulture scavenging on decomposition.

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