CULLOWHEE – A scientist pushes a cart containing a badly decomposed body into an over-sized refrigerator and pulls down the doctor’s mask that had been shielding him from the stench of death.
“It’s definitely a homicide,” the scientist says, removing his latex gloves as a pair of loud snaps echo through the lab. “The police have a murder on their hands.”
On the other side of the room, another scientist is examining a fragment of bone. “Looks like this one was about 55 years old at the time of death, maybe 6 feet tall,” she says, peering through the microscope to see what other clues can be discovered from the remains.
It may sound like a fictional scene from the hit TV show “CSI,” but it’s a scenario that could soon play out for real in the basement floor of Western Carolina University’s McKee Building, home to a new area of study in the forensic sciences. Call this highly anticipated new program “CSI Cullowhee.”
John Williams, one of only 55 board-certified forensic anthropologists in the United States, has joined the faculty in Western’s department of anthropology and sociology to develop the program of study. Williams, who comes to Western after 23 years at the University of North Dakota, is a biological anthropologist who specializes in forensic anthropology – the study of the human skeleton in legal situations.
Western plans to offer a new concentration in forensic anthropology within the department of anthropology and sociology beginning in fall 2004, and the university will begin development of a master’s degree program in forensic anthropology, with classes perhaps available by fall 2005.
“We want to meet student demand for a program in forensics,” said Williams. “Forensics sciences have become one of the most highly sought-after degree programs in the past few years, and enrollments are up at forensics programs at colleges and universities across the nation.”
Some experts have attributed the increased interest in forensics to such popular television programs as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “The X-Files” and “Cold Case,” and to such high-profile court cases as the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the Chandra Levy missing person case.
Williams warns that TV and movie writers take the same sort of creative liberties with forensic scientists that they do with police officers, attorneys and emergency room doctors. “Forensic anthropology is a fascinating field, but we’re not out there every day at crime scenes,” he said. “Our work is primarily in the lab, running tests or analyzing DNA, and then testifying in court about our findings.”
A fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Williams is a member of a team of specialists called “DMORT” (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team), a federal agency in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that activates forensic anthropologists, pathologists, fingerprint experts, funeral home directors and other specialists to deal with mass fatality disasters.
Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Williams spent about two weeks sorting through debris from Ground Zero – the site of the destroyed twin towers of the World Trade Center. A founding member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, he also has assisted in the identification of victims of two airline crashes, and recently developed a procedure to aid cemeteries in moving unvaulted graves.
On the job at Western since the beginning of the 2003 fall semester, Williams is transforming a large section of the basement level of the recently renovated McKee Building into a working forensic anthropology laboratory and outfitting it with laboratory equipment, including large refrigerators capable of storing human bodies, microscopes and examining tables. When complete, the lab will specialize in human identification, the effects of decomposition on the human body, and injury to the human skeleton.
For more information about Western’s programs in forensic anthropology, contact the department of anthropology and sociology at (828) 227-7268.