Kathy Reichs: Forensics is bred in the bone
Kathy Reichs, a bestselling author and forensic anthropologist, will be speaking at Concordia University Monday night as part of the university’s Thinking Out Loud series.
Along with Concordia professor Cameron Skinner, Reichs, who for years worked at the Quebec government’s Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de médecine légale, will speak about the science of crime and how “it helps connect the dots.”
Throughout her career, Reichs has been involved in high profile cases, including identifying remains after 9/11, analyzing bones of Quebec serial killer Serge Archambault’s first victim and helping exhume a mass grave in Guatemala. The television series Bones is based on her Temperance Brennan crime novel series.
Ahead of the event, Reichs spoke with the Montreal Gazette about forensic anthropology and some of the ways it’s misunderstood.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
On working as a forensic anthropologist:
Both psychologically and physically, the job is not for everyone. You’re working with the dead. Often, you’re working with the not-so-pretty dead. You’re working with violent death very frequently: homicides, suicides, accidental deaths.
Dealing with the smells and the maggots and the psychological reality of death is not for everyone.
There are no two days alike. It could be bones found that would turn out to be animal bones. It could be a homicide or just a skeleton found in the woods — perhaps an elderly person who wandered off, got lost and died and wasn’t found until later. So it’s always something different. Not every case is something criminal.
With criminal cases, you never know going in what it’s going to be, you always have to be aware — it isn’t just that you’re looking at some bones. Any time you accept to do a case, it could go all the way through trial and appeal. You have to be prepared for that — testifying in court is not my favourite thing.
On visiting crime scenes or burial sites:
You’re looking for everything that’s there and any information about the body: How deep is it, what position is it in, are there any marks in the grave that might indicate what kind of tool was used to dig it? Any information about insect activity, scavenging activity, time since death. Anything that is there could turn out to be useful information later.
There can be that critical piece of information that’s either gathered or lost. The context can be very, very useful. Once you’ve recovered that body and taken it out, all that context is lost.
On popular misconceptions about forensic science:
One of the big misconceptions — and partly due to television shows like Bones and thrillers — is that every case gets solved. And that’s just simply not true. Every case does not get solved. There are many unsolved cases in Montreal right now.
There’s always the possibility that a new technique can be useful in an old case. It never hurts to get old material out in an evidence room or in a lab and see. Maybe you have clothing that has bodily fluids or blood and maybe, now, you can, in fact, sequence DNA from it.
Another misconception is that DNA is being used in every single case — that in every single trial there’s going to be DNA testimony.
But one of the good things about shows and books and fiction — taking the science and presenting it to the public in the form of fiction — is that it does make the public aware of how powerful forensic science is. That there are many powerful tools, if used properly. (According to the National Institute of Justice, 44 per cent of jurors expect to see some kind of scientific evidence in every criminal case, 22 per cent expect to see DNA evidence, and 36 per cent expect to see fingerprint evidence.)
AT A GLANCE
Connect the Dots — The Science of Crime will be held at 6:30 p.m. on March 14 at ConcordiaUniversity, D.B. Clarke Theatre, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W. The event is sold out.