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The science - and art - of forensics

14 Jun 2010

The UN’s chief scientific advisor, who was senior forensics advisor for exhumations in both Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia in 1996 and subsequently directed investigations for the Special Court of Sierra Leone, has spoken at a conference on Forensics hosted by The University of Manchester.

William Haglund is a forensic anthropologist. He served as Chief Medical Investigator of the King County Medical Examiner's Office, Seattle, Washington, for 14 years, during which time he worked on the recovery , skeletal analysis and, identification of victims in the longest and most active serial murder investigation in U.S. history – the notorious “Green River Murders”. In December 1995 he became the United Nations' Senior Forensic Advisor for the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia, after which he served as Director of the International Forensic Program for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). His work with the United Nations and PHR has included investigation of human rights abuses, crimes against humanity and genocide. He has organized and directed forensic assessments and investigations in numerous countries, including Guatemala, Honduras, Rwanda, Somaliland, Georgia/Abkhazia, the former Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, East Timor, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Dr Haglund was joined by renowned US academic David Foran, who says the infamous Dr Crippen was not guilty as charged. Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen was an American homeopathic physician hanged in Pentonville Prison, on 23 November 1910, for the murder of his wife, would-be music hall singer Cora Henrietta Crippen (stage name Belle Elmore). Dr Crippen’s wife disappeared and later body parts were found buried in the cellar of their home. Dr Crippen and his lover Ethel ‘Le Neve’ Neave, disguised as a boy, were sailing to Canada when the Captain of the ship spotted them and alerted the British authorities by telegram, making him the first criminal to be captured with the aid of wireless communication. However Dr Foran says mitochondrial DNA evidence shows that the remains found beneath the cellar floor in Crippen's home were not that of Cora Crippen; his research was based on genealogical identification of her two grand-nieces.

The conference also featured an evening event with the creator of the popular forensics drama Waking the Dead Barbara Machin. Responsible for attracting 8M viewers to the BBC, she discussed screening forensics.

The international event, sponsored by the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM), at Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences, and the Wellcome Trust, examined in analytical and historical perspective the remarkable prominence of forensic science and medicine in contemporary culture. It brought together leading scholars from history, sociology and socio-legal studies, media and cultural studies, and practitioners working within the diverse locations of forensic culture – from crime scenes and bio-medical laboratories to television studios. Topics for discussion included the politics and practice of DNA evidence, the use of "cold case review" in re-evaluating celebrated murder trials from the past, the historical invention of "crime scene investigation", the work of forensic identification at mass grave sites, and media forensics.

Organiser Dr Ian Burney said: “In the courtroom, in newspapers, and on our television screens, modern day forensics has never been so visible, so compelling and, in some respects, so contentious. This conference placed the remarkable prominence of forensic science and medicine in contemporary culture in analytical and historical perspective.”

Co-organiser Dr David Kirby added: “It brought together leading scholars from history, sociology and socio-legal studies, media and cultural studies, and practitioners working within the diverse spaces of forensic culture – from crime scenes and bio-medical laboratories to television studios. It will enable a genuinely cross-disciplinary conversation of interest to a broad audience of academics, forensic practitioners and the public.”

Notes for editors

For more information or an interview with Ian Burney or David Kirby contact Media Relations Officer Mikaela Sitford on 0161 275 2111, 07768 980942 or Mikaela.Sitford@manchester.ac.uk.