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Ethics in Forensic Anthropology

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Anthropology
Wordcount: 5062 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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 Forensic anthropology is a young discipline compared to the other sub-fields of physical anthropology. As a discipline, it involves the application of skeletal analysis and techniques in archeology to solve criminal cases (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). Forensic anthropologists play the crucial role of gathering information from human remains, which help to identify a dead person, the cause of death, and the time it occurred (Libal, 2014). Their specialty is the analysis of hard body tissues such as bones that are used to identify the age, sex, stature, and ancestry of a victim. This makes them an integral element of criminal investigations with regard to identifying remains of a decomposed body or one that has been burnt beyond recognition. In addition, forensic anthropologists are involved in documenting mass graves and genocide, as well as testifying in courts as expert witnesses. Research has shown that forensic anthropology is a highly sensitive profession that requires all stakeholders to exercise a high level of professionalism and commitment (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). Forensic anthropologists encounter numerous ethical issues in their education journey, research undertakings, and professional development. According to experts, this challenge is further heightened by the fact that opportunities for discourse and training in ethics are very limited for forensic anthropologists (Houck, 2015). There is an urgent need to review the current state of ethics within the field of forensic anthropology with regard to its practice, level of professionalism, and addressing various legal concerns.

Earliest Methods of Forensic Anthropologists

 According to forensic experts, the techniques used in identifying a person from the analysis of the skeleton rely a lot on the contributions of earlier anthropologists who studied skeletal differences. The first group of forensic anthropologists was trained in the 20th Century, when the discipline was officially recognized. Reports indicate that the integration of anthropology into forensic investigations in the United States was necessitated by the growth of physical anthropology as a discipline (Steadman, 2015). It was pioneered by Earnest Hooton, who was the first trained physical anthropologist teacher in the country and the proponent of criminal anthropology. He backed the use of this concept to explain criminal behaviors on back of a eugenics movement, which involved the study of methods geared towards improving genetic qualities through selective breeding (Katzenberg & Grauer, 2018). Thomas Wingate Todd was also one of the earliest anthropologists who made a huge contribution to the growth and acceptance of the discipline. In 1912, Todd created the first ever and the largest collection of human skulls and skeletons. Using his huge collection, he made notable contributions to the field of anthropology such as studies on suture closures on the skull, as well as teeth eruption in the jawbone (Pirelli, Beattey & Zapf, 2016). In addition, he also developed a technique of determining age using physical characteristics of parts that grow together in pubis.

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Wilton M. Krogman who was Todd’s student also played a pivotal role in the legitimization of the forensic anthropology. His most notable contribution towards the realization of this feat was active promotion of the forensic potential of anthropologists (Katzenberg & Grauer, 2018). He constantly posted adverts in the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Law Enforcement Bulletin with the intention of briefing various law enforcement agencies about the ability of anthropologists to help in solving criminal cases. In 1950, the American army used the services of forensic anthropologists to identify casualties of the Korean War (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). This marked the official beginning of forensic anthropology as a practice. This was followed by several milestones that laid good ground for the professionalism of the discipline. William M. Bass opened the first forensic research facility, which played a major role in attracting the attention and interest of the public in the discipline (Blau, 2016). This phenomenon was necessitated by the fact that the facility helped to enhance the capacity of forensic anthropologists to work on high-profile criminal cases in the country.

The early anthropologists used osteology as a technique in doing their work. It refers to a branch of anatomy that studies the bones of vertebrate skeleton. In determining the sex, age, ancestry, and stature of an individual, it is necessary for anthropologists to have a good comprehension of the various elements that characterize the human skeleton (Steadman, 2015). The elements are responsible for the notable differences between individuals, thus making it possible to draw a distinction between two people. The sex of an individual was determined by examining the pubic curve and the location of the sacrum, a wedge-shaped bone consisting of five fused vertebrae forming the posterior part of the pelvis. A female pelvis is characterized by a wide pubic arch, as well as a short sacrum that is pushed back, while a male pelvis is characterized by a narrow pubic arch and a long sacrum (Katzenberg & Grauer, 2018). Since the pelvis is not always present in a skull that is being examined, forensic anthropologists ought to know of other areas such as eye sockets and temporal lines that can be used to distinguish sexes. Reports indicate that a male skull compared to that of a female is often larger and thicker with pronounced ridges (Pirelli, et al., 2016). In addition, differences that occur between bones can make it hard for forensic anthropologists to determine the sex of an individual. For example, it is possible to find a man with wide and shorter pubic arch contrary to the expectations. This explains why earlier anthropologists often classified sex into five possibilities, namely female, may be female, male, may be male, or indeterminate (Rosenblatt, 2015).

Over the years, forensic anthropologists have determined the stature of an individual by measuring the bones of the leg and the arm. The leg bones that are usually measured are the femur, tibia, and fibula (Rosenblatt, 2015). Femur is the longest and thickest bone of the human skeleton that extends from the pelvis to the knee. Tibia is the inner and thicker bone of the human leg between the knee and ankle, while fibula is the outer and thinner bone. The arm bones used in determining stature are the humerus, ulna, and radius (Katzenberg & Grauer, 2018). Humerus is the bone extending from the shoulder to the elbow. Ulna is the inner and longer bone of the forearm, while radius is the outer and slightly shorter bone.

Stature is often determined last after the sex, age, and ancestry have been found. This phenomenon is influenced by the characteristic differences that distinguish different populations and sexes. In addition, research has established that the human skeleton tends to shrink as someone ages (Rosenblatt, 2015). Determination of age by anthropologists is dependent on the stage at which an individual dies. The age of someone below 21 years is determined through the examination of the teeth and growth plates incase the former is not available. In girls, the tibia plate is sealed at 16 to 17 years of age and the clavicle is seals at 25 years of age, while in boys, the tibia plate seals at 18 to 19 years (Libal, 2014). According to experts, anthropologists can also determine the age of an individual by counting the number of bones in a complete skeleton. An adult should have approximately 206 bones, while those of a child should be slightly higher (Rosenblatt, 2015). 

Forensic anthropologists have also applied various techniques to determine an individual’s ancestry. This is done using three historical categories, namely Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid (Katzenberg & Grauer, 2018). Caucasoid refers to people of or relating to Caucasian origin. Mongoloid refers to people of or a member of the traditional racial division of human kind including people of Central and Eastern Asia. The three categories are differentiated using maxilla, the jaw in vertebrates that is fused to the cranium. Anthropologists determine the ancestry of an individual using three basic shapes of maxilla, namely hyperbolic, parabolic, and rounded that characterize the three historical categories (Pirelli, et al., 2016).

Importance of Ethical Record Keeping for Professional Forensic Anthropologists

 There is an urgent need for professional ethics in forensic anthropology, especially in the contemporary world where almost everything has been digitalized. One of the realities that forensic anthropologists have to deal with is the fact that rapid evolution of computers, information systems, as well as the increased uptake of the internet poses a huge threat to their reputation with regard to record keeping (Libal, 2014). Studies have shown that with the reality of technological tools such as databases and social networking sites, forensic anthropologists ought to be alert in order to avoid compromising their ethical values as expert witnesses in court by presenting correct information (Black & Ferguson, 2016).

Maintaining high ethical standards is very important in the field of forensic anthropology because examiners often come across numerous secrets, information that could pose a threat to national security, and highly personal information (Yadav, 2017). Experts argue that forensic anthropologists have an ethical obligation of respecting the privacy of the people involved in their examinations, as well as any information they may access and does not affect the outcomes of their activities. In addition, forensic anthropologists have an ethical responsibility of presenting evidence that is right, adequate, and unbiased. Studies have shown that poor record keeping is one of the vices that have compromised the reputation of the discipline over the years (Houck, 2015). Overlooking evidence during an examination is unethical because any information that is determined not to exist during an examination could be a life-changing factor during court cases. Reports indicate that such information could be the difference between someone going to jail or not, as well as determining the parent who gets the custody of a child.

SOFA Ethical Guidelines

 According to the Society of Forensic Anthropology (SOFA), its members have specific guidelines for professional conduct that everyone ought to follow. One of the notable elements about the guidelines is the insistence on promotion of the ethics in everything that one does. Forensic anthropologists are supposed to promote the honor associated with the profession by recognizing their main duty, which is to serve the interests of justice to the best of their abilities (Ubelaker, 2015). In addition, they should reorient their motives, methods, as well as actions to be above accusation and be executed in respect to human distinction. Another guideline requires forensic anthropologists to combine forces with their peers in the field of forensic sciences through research, as well as sharing information on new discoveries and techniques applicable in the advancement of forensic anthropology (Houck, 2015). Members of SOFA are also not expected to undertake examinations or give testimony in areas they are not qualified. This goes a long way in promoting professional ethics in digital forensics, where by an examiner gets tempted to use information sourced from unsecured databases or social media yet one does not have any authority over its authenticity (Steadman, 2015).  This means that it is unethical for forensic anthropologists to misrepresent the qualifications of expertise in this manner.

 It is unethical for forensic anthropologists to use abysmal records or manipulated results (Ubelaker, 2015). According to SOFA, they are supposed to make examinations with evidentiary items by using acceptable scientific techniques. In addition, they should incorporate research methods that are reliable and accurate in accordance to the permissible standard controls. Research has established that forensic anthropologists are prone to skewed courtroom testimonies (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). This is a contravention of the SOFA guidelines, which state that the techniques used and opinions given by their members should be based on facts. Additionally, they should not cause any form of misrepresentation knowingly (Houck, 2015). Forensic anthropologists who appear in courtrooms as expert witnesses are supposed to render unbiased testimony, as well as make sure that the findings of their examinations are explained in an impartial manner. Experts argue that any form of impartiality with regard to record keeping by forensic anthropologists qualifies as a lack of respect for human remains and the essence of the profession (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). This explains why forensic anthropologists are supposed to keep all classified communications confidential. This includes verbal, written, graphic, and web-based information (Ubelaker, 2015).

Professional versus Personal Ethics in Forensic Anthropology

 Forensic anthropology has a code of conduct to which all qualified and certified members agree to submit. In cases where a profession does not have its own ethical based code of conduct, the government often imposes legal rules that act as a benchmark for ensuring professionalism. Forensic anthropologists work in collaboration with various law enforcement agencies, as well as legal professionals such as lawyers and judges in delivering justice (Christensen, Passalacqua & Bartelink, 2014). Their activities mainly involve working in laboratories associated with these professions that also have their own ethical codes of conduct. This phenomenon leaves forensic anthropologists with major dilemmas with regard to observing the ethical code of conduct of the profession without compromising their personal ethics. The main reason for this is the fact each profession develops its ethical codes with the aim of guiding its members to the most appropriate course of action, especially in situations where they have to collaborate with professionals from other disciplines (Burns, 2015). Research has established that the conflict between the need to observe professional ethics and promote personal ethics often compromises the ability of forensic anthropologists to remain unbiased in their work (Libal, 2014).

 In every courtroom, the usual dictum is for witnesses to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. However, experts argue that the applicability of this maxim is not as easy as it sounds. This phenomenon is necessitated by the lack of a universal definition of truth, which makes it hard for forensic anthropologists who work as professional witnesses to provide all possible alternatives for a given situation (Burns, 2015). In addition, forensic experts that appear as witnesses in court are often left in a compromising situation when a prosecutor fails to ask an important question with regard to the results of an examination. Considering it is important to respect the guiding principles of every profession, such situations are not ideal to the professional status of forensic anthropologists because it undermines the essence of their involvement in criminal cases (Steadman, 2015). In addition, the situation further complicates the aforementioned maxim in that a forensic anthropologist who gives a testimony in a court of law is left with only one option of giving the most probable alternative to a situation in response to a question asked by a prosecutor.

 Personal ethics is very important to the development of forensic anthropology as a discipline. Reports indicate that unethical behaviors such as defamation of colleagues, drug abuse, violence, criminal convictions, and dishonesty compromise the professional status of law enforcement agencies because of the close association they have with forensic anthropologists (Black & Ferguson, 2016). Studies have established that professionals in this field are prone to vices such as obtaining clients through unfair means and false claims of expertise, especially in cases where they have hidden personal interests (Burns, 2015). 

Ethical Dilemmas in Forensic Anthropology

 False claims of expertise represent one of the major ethical dilemmas in forensic anthropology. Reports indicate that this vice is often committed by forensic anthropologists who appear as expert witnesses in court (Yadav, 2017). Examples of misrepresentation of credentials common with professionals working in this field include claims of an unearned degree from a particular institution, false claims of certification to work as a forensic anthropologist from the American Board of Pathology, as well as unverifiable work history and information about the number of previous testimonies given in a courtroom (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). According to experts, such misrepresentations are often aimed at building good reputation before a judge and impressing a potential client, all of which qualify as unethical acts that should be discouraged. Reports also indicate that forensic anthropologists are prone to faults relating to laboratory analytical procedures (Libal, 2014). All laboratories have principles that guide the processes of carrying out tests and recording the results. It is unethical for any professional to disregard the protocols of any laboratory because it leads to insufficient and indiscriminate analysis of tests carried out (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). The conclusions made and presented by a forensic anthropologist on any test are expected to be unambiguous and comprehensible. However, studies have established that unethical professionals are prone to “dry-labbing”, a practice where forensic anthropologists report on the findings of an analysis and give their conclusions without carrying out any examination (Yadav, 2017). 

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 Interpretation of analytical data and presenting it as testimony in a court of law is also a major dilemma that forensic anthropologists often face. Professionals in this field are fond of using scientific jargon and statements open to multiple interpretations in a court of law much to the disadvantage of everyone. It is unethical for forensic anthropologists who appear in court as expert witnesses to use terms that the judge cannot understand, and in some instances cannot be explained in detail (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). This challenge is necessitated by the need to maintain the status of their profession, while at the same time doing their best to give appropriate and informed conclusions. In addition, they also avoid giving minimal results before a court of law without the accompanying explanations because it is a contravention of the ethical code of conduct (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). However, it becomes more challenging when the forensic anthropologist giving the testimony in a court of law is not the one who performed the analysis. Although this is allowed within the forensic anthropology discipline, studies have shown that the unavailability of the person who conducts an analysis to give a testimony often affects the final ruling made by a judge (Black & Ferguson, 2016).

 The dilemma of privately and publicly employed forensic anthropologists also characterizes the ethical concerns of forensic anthropology. Research has established that since the turn of the century, the number of forensic anthropologists working as private consultants has increased at an alarming rate (Yadav, 2017). They have been a major source of the numerous controversies associated with the profession. Reports indicate that the challenge with private forensic anthropologists is the fact that they do not have a disciplinary code to regulate their conduct. Although everyone has to be accredited by the American Board of Pathology and be a member of SOFA to operate as a forensic anthropologist, experts argue that private consultants are prone to malpractices compared to their counterparts who are publicly employed (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). This phenomenon is necessitated by the fact that private practice in the field of forensic anthropology has high financial incentives, little supervision, and anthropologists are not subjected to review from peers on a regular basis (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). 

 Technology has had an effect on record keeping done by forensic anthropologists (Black & Ferguson, 2016). Technology has rapidly changed numerous aspects in life with regard to their effectiveness and efficiency. Social networking sites have made it easier for people to communicate. Databases have improved the ability to backup information for later use, while file sharing tools such as Skype have enhanced faster transfer of information. However, technology has created a huge dilemma for forensic anthropologists because verification of information retrieved from social media is extremely hard (Dirkmaat, 2014). According to experts, making social media evidence relevant before a court of law is a huge threat to the ethics of forensic anthropology. This challenge is necessitated by the fact that an investigator has an ethical obligation of respecting the privacy of others. In addition, providers of social networking sites are likely not to cooperate during an investigation, an element that might force a forensic anthropologist in need of some information to break the ethical code of conduct (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). Reports also indicate that the challenge with social media is the fact that information is often posted and deleted at the users will, thus complicating matters for an investigator trying to follow up a certain piece of evidence (Dirkmaat, 2014). Experts argue that forensic anthropologists working in the contemporary world should limit their reliance on information extracted from social media owing to the fact that authenticating it is close to impossible (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). However, technological techniques such as screenshots can be helpful to investigators who dedicate their time and effort to gather as much information as possible from social media before writing their reports.

Keeping Souvenirs from Investigations

 Studies have established that one of the common elements that compromises the reliability of reports presented by forensic anthropologists in a court of law as evidence is the lack of crime scene ethics (Rodgers, 2015). There is an urgent need for professionals in this field to understand their ethical obligation with regard to preserving the integrity of their investigations, as well as the professional status of their agencies. Experts argue that the American Academy of Forensic Science should identify and fill the existing gaps that compromise the capacity of forensic anthropologists to observe the ethical code of conduct in a crime scene (Rodgers, 2015). Removing, withholding, or selling souvenirs from crime scenes with the intention of averting a potential conflict of interest is acceptable. Forensic anthropologists are allowed to carry things from former crime scenes provided they are of educational value, have no significant monetary value, do not hold any significance to the case that was being investigated, the scene has been cleared, and the property owner has granted permission (Page, 2013). However, it is unethical for forensic anthropologists to do the same in situations where the ability to prove the accuracy of evidence presented in a court of law is highly compromised. In addition, forensic anthropologists are not allowed to collect anything from a crime scene without the permission of a police investigator regardless of the state in which the item is found (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018).

 One of the benefits of observing crime scene ethics for forensic anthropologists is the fact that it prevents the appearance of bad behavior. According to forensic experts, two effective strategies can be applied to address the ethical dilemmas associated with crime scenes (Rodgers, 2015). The first strategy is the blanket rule, which entails forensic anthropologists resisting the urge to pick up things from a crime scene for whatever reason they might consider appropriate. This includes crime scenes that involve searches, recoveries or investigations (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). The second strategy is ensuring that any item picked from a crime scene with the intention of being used for training purposes should have the permission of the relevant authorities. Reports indicate that forensic officers who have been caught with souvenirs from past crimes have always defended their possession of the items with the concept of educational material (Page, 2013). However, experts argue that such behavior is unethical and should be discouraged because it lowers the dignity of the profession.

Regardless of the intrinsic value that a souvenir has to an investigator, it is important for professionals working with law enforcement agencies to act as good examples with regard to respecting the rule of law (Passalacqua & Pilloud, 2018). Studies have shown that the number of forensic anthropologists who have been charged for theft offenses they ought to have avoided in the crime scene was very high at the turn of the century (Page, 2013). However, due to increased awareness creation and capacity building, the ethical standing of the profession has improved a lot over the last couple of decades. Criminalists argue that there is an urgent need for the relevant stakeholders and law enforcement agencies to come up with ethical guidelines applicable to crime scenes and the items found there in a bid to build the reputation of the profession (Rodgers, 2015).


 Over the years, forensic anthropologists have contributed to positive scientific identification of individuals in criminal cases. Although the discipline is relatively young compared to the other sub-fields of physical anthropology, forensic anthropologists are also involved in documenting mass graves and genocide, as well as testifying in courts as expert witnesses. Forensic anthropology is a highly sensitive profession that requires everyone to exercise a high level of professionalism and commitment. Ethics in forensic anthropology is a sensitive issue owing to the fact that investigators deal with remains of a human body, which ought to be accorded the necessary respect. In addition, forensic anthropologists also encounter a lot of personal information during their examinations that should be also be respected. Crime scene ethics is also a major concern in this profession, especially when it comes to taking souvenirs from previous crimes. Crime scenes should not be tampered with without permission because it is unethical and a disregard to the rule of law. There is an urgent need to review the current state of ethics within the field of forensic anthropology with regard to its practice, level of professionalism, and addressing various legal concerns.


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