Forensic research facility at WCU to aid police, student training

A new forensic research facility being developed at Western Carolina University will help prepare students for careers in forensics, enhance the skills of law enforcement officials statewide, and assist local police and sheriff’s departments with crime scene investigations.

Student Melissa Lowe of Wilson County (NC) studies a human skull in WCU's anthropology lab.

Student Melissa Lowe of Wilson County (NC) studies a human skull in WCU’s anthropology lab.

The facility, only the second of its kind in the United States, is part of WCU’s growing academic programs in forensic anthropology and forensic science. Patterned after a similar facility at the University of Tennessee, Western’s forensic research station is designed to help scientists determine how the unique geography and climate of the Western North Carolina mountains influence postmortem decay.

North Carolina’s chief medical examiner says the facility will add to the forensic data gained from the work of Dr. Bill Bass at the nationally known research center at Knoxville. “Dr. Bass’ Tennessee facility has contributed to our understanding of this important process and aided death investigators around the country in more accurately estimating postmortem interval in human remains,” said Dr. John D. Butts, chief medical examiner for the state. “Studies out of a Western Carolina facility could help to determine whether there are any substantial differences in these processes in other geographic areas, which could prove helpful in the training of death investigators in this important area.”

Located on university-owned property near the center of a 344-acre tract west of N.C. Highway 107, the facility is expected to provide significant learning opportunities for students and will give scientists a better understanding of the complex process of how bodies deteriorate into skeletons, said John Williams, director of the forensic anthropology program at WCU.

“Through the study of skeletal remains, forensic anthropologists can help law enforcement officials determine the time of a person’s death, which is a vital step in determining the cause of death,” said Williams, one of only 58 board-certified forensic anthropologists in the United States. “ The ultimate goal is to help law enforcement officers in Western North Carolina work toward the speedy solution of homicides or accidental death investigations.”

Research at the new station will be conducted in conjunction with the university’s existing Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory, a fully equipped, 1,100-square-foot facility dedicated to the recovery, storage and analysis of human remains.

Jerry Melbye of the department of anthropology and sociology at Texas State University said the work conducted at the laboratory and the new forensic research station will have “far-reaching implications for law enforcement and the adjudication of criminal matters.”

“Such a facility would result in premiere research grounds for forensic anthropology, entomology and other areas of the forensic sciences, and I am confident that it would result in the forensic science program at Western Carolina University becoming a recognized leader in forensic research in North Carolina, the United States and abroad,” said Melbye, who is planning a similar facility at Texas State University .

For more information about the forensic anthropology program, contact John Williams at (828) 227-2430.