Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"Body farms are springing up all over..."

It appears that Texas residents are upset about the prospect of a body farm popping up in their backyards (Hat tip: Michael W.):

The CSI TV shows are among the most watched in the world. But forensic science is hitting a little close to home for some Texas property owners, who oppose plans for a nearby "body farm," where decomposing bodies will be studied in the wild.

In this real-life episode of CSI: Nimby— not in my backyard — residents of a rural area near the San Marcos Airport, 30 miles south of Austin, have objected to plans by Texas State University to build a 17-acre body farm nearby. With three acres designated for research and surrounded by a wide fenced boundary, plus cages over the exposed bodies, university officials assured residents there would no problems....

The first facility at the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Facility, was opened on a three-acre site in Knoxville in 1971 by noted anthropologist William Bass. Prolific crime writer Patricia Cornwell popularly dubbed it a "body farm" in her novel of the same name. Bass himself has co-written a series of best-selling novels set on the farm; the first, Carved in Bone, was described as "southern-fried forensics" by Kirkus Reviews....

Jason Byrd, a well-known forensic entomologist, says that body farms are becoming more important as stranger-on-stranger crime is on the increase. In cases where the victim is related to the murderer by family, financial or social bonds, police often use these connections to help solve cases. "Now there are more random acts of violence and we have less and less avenues to turn to," says Byrd. Body farms cannot be set up to mimic every kind of environment, of course, but already they have given southern criminologists vital research — for example, bodies decompose in Florida in three days, compared with 30 days in the mountains of Tennessee.

I find it troubling that body farms are "springing up all over" as a result of stranger-on-stranger crime becoming more prevalent. "Current statistics show that only 45 percent of murder victims actually knew their killers. During the 1960's, 71 percent of murder victims knew who their killers were." Perhaps this increase in stranger killings is why people feel more fearful of being the victim of a random violent act now more than ever before and why shows like CSI are so popular. It is harder to find an unknown killer and advanced forensics can make the difference in whether or not the killer is caught. So CSI may act as a therapeutic measure for some people albeit a false one since many times, CSI has advanced techniques that the police and experts are not equipped to carry out.

We recently interviewed Bill Bass--the forensic anthropologist for a podcast that you can check out here if you want to know more about forensic anthropology and the work being done at the Body Farm.


Blogger Donna said...

I'm not sure I would describe the body farms as "springing up all over" since there are only two active at this point in time (TN and NC) and the eventual opening of the one at TSU. I can appreciate the local residents apprehension to call NIMBY but this is a valuable service. It is not a pretty service, but nonetheless, valuable.

In addition, police criminalists need to combat the growing problem of "The CSI effect" where juries who are viewing shows like CSI and Bones every week come to expect the miracle discoveries of Gil Grissom and Temperance Brennan performed on a simple case of assault and battery, etc.

7:35 PM, May 23, 2007  
Blogger Webutante said...

A little off topic but still somewhat relevant, I cannot tell you how horrified and frightened I was after reading about that double murder of the abducted couple by the black men and a woman back this winter in Knoxville. The couple were certainly strangers to these people and yet were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It certainly does put an larger anxiety factor into the world when things like that happen and go unexplaned.

10:53 PM, May 23, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article did seem a little over dramatic. Donna ID'd the overstatement in "Body farms are springing up all over." The article also plays up the "NIMBY" business, but when you read it closely, it says the original TSU body farm location was nixed due to bird-strike hazards (which is not a trivial thing) rather than neighbor's complaint(s).

The real story seems to be the increase in stranger on stranger crime, which the good doc Helen picked up on.


11:28 PM, May 23, 2007  
Blogger Dan Collins said...

Bill Blass is a forensic anthropologist? Who knew?

I still think you guys have to get Don Downs from U of W-Madison on campus speech codes & related.

6:24 AM, May 24, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a little queasy about the disrespect with which these bodies are being treated. Dissecting a cadaver in a sterile lab is dodgy enough. Leaving a body in the open air to watch it decompose crosses the line into sacrilege, seems to me. In Central Texas, I'm surprised that issue wasn't raised.

9:26 AM, May 24, 2007  
Blogger The 73rd Virgin said...

"Current statistics show that only 45 percent of murder victims actually knew their killers. During the 1960's, 71 percent of murder victims knew who their killers were."

Are you sure? Or is it just that police are finally recognizing stranger-on-stranger crime as a signficant source? At one point in NYC roughly 80% of SOLVED crimes involved family members or somone known by the victim, but only 40% of homicides were solved at all. The first statistic got reported slavishly and applied to the entire country, but the second statistic went ignored. In fact, the first statistic was used to justify gun control while the ignored second statistic was a useful argument for gun rights.

I'm not convinced that stranger murders are any more common now than before, they're just harder to hang on handy local suspects. Thanks in part to this kind of forensics.

9:47 AM, May 24, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Perhaps this increase in stranger killings is why people feel more fearful of being the victim of a random violent act now more than ever before and why shows like CSI are so popular."

I kind of feel as if the rise in stranger killings is BECAUSE of shows like CSI being popular. You have got to wonder what kind of sick minds are watching this violent and vile garbage.

My sweet, gentle mother is into watching one of the CSI iterations. When I stayed over her house a while back she and I settled down with our tea to watch an evening with her "shows." Kind of wish we had rented a movie, because the horrible show stays with me and still gives me the creeps. I think she is like the frog put into cold water and then boiled slowly. Whereas I kind of fell away from tv viewing, she has been a faithful viewer for decades in the evening. My theory is that the shows went from Columbo and Murder she Wrote, kind of gentile detective shows, to the obscenely sick stuff on now, and through it all my mom just keeps watching. She, however, has not got any violent tendancies, but what of those who do?

10:13 AM, May 24, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...the horrible show stays with me and still gives me the creeps..."
I can't watch CSI:Special Victims Unit.

The scientist in me likes CSI and most of its spinoff shows. As a kid, I read Nancy Drew and Agathie Christie and watched Quincy. The CSI-like shows are an evolution combining detective and science genres. I'm only an occasional tv viewer.

I think it'd neat to own some land as a Body Farm. It'd probably be a good business investment.

10:41 AM, May 24, 2007  
Blogger jeff said...

Want to end your sex life? Have a wife that watches L&O:CI,SVU,ETC; NCIS; all three of the CSIs and Bones.

Nobody wants to get romantic after that.

11:51 AM, May 24, 2007  
Blogger Donna said...

Anonymous 9:26

The bodies that are used at places like the University of Tennessee's Anthropology Research Facility (aka the original body farm) are all donated by individuals prior to their death

These are bodies which have been donated to science for the sake of studies of things like entomological studies for peri / post mortem and time of death /decomposition.

11:55 AM, May 24, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what I want to know is: Are the rates of stranger murder on the rise, are the rates of murder between those who know each other falling off, or some of both?

12:01 PM, May 24, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...

To all,

It seems that women are the primary viewers and purchasers of the shows and books on this CSI type of forensic work. I do not watch these shows typically and find them gruesome just like commenter Jeff above. I wonder what draws women to them? Any thoughts?

12:04 PM, May 24, 2007  
Blogger Joanna said...

I've always enjoyed detective/crime tv shows. But, I can't take shows like CSI. The gruesome "show all the blood and gore" style of show is not the least bit entertaining. And, I don't understand the appeal. I have friends who say things like "yeah, it's a bit much but I still like watching it." How can that be? So, I can't help you with your question, Helen.

1:08 PM, May 24, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think CSI, with its emphasis on science and technology, makes the gore seem more "distant" somehow. To most people, a crime scene is a horrible place. To the "squints" (as the investigators are called on Bones), it's a collection of specimens to study. The guts aren't the point - it's what the clever people learn from the guts that's important. Some people can relate to that, others can't.

Contrast this with movies like ""Grindhouse," where the blood and guts and violence are the center of attraction. Ironically, of course.

On the other hand, I'm not sure why the producers of CSI and similar shows feel the need for such graphic depictions. I can understand how a bullet travels through the human body without the camera following it around through all the goo. Possibly, the idea is that a show needs to be "extreme" to be noticed these days.

I think women like the shows because the characters and plots are interesting. They also feature interesting women characters. Bones is a good example of this. In fact, I'd say Bones is really produced with women in mind.

For those opposed to blood 'n' guts - there are always reruns of "The Gilmore Girls."

2:40 PM, May 24, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Helen, I watch 2 of the CSI shows (don't watch Miami - David Caruso annoys me), Bones, and a lot of the forensic shows on Court TV because I love the science (which as far as I know is pretty accurate, except for the speed at which they get DNA hits). It's something I would have liked to do, but I know I don't have the extreme patience needed.

The gore doesn't bother me, but then I'm in a volunteer rescue squad and am used to scraping up wreck, industrial accident, and assault victims. After many years on the streets, I don't think there's anything a "human" being could do to another that would surprise me; anger and disgust me, sure, but not surprise.

The best part of watching the shows is that I can't smell anything - and trust me, there is a smell. Sometimes pretty bad.

And, like most mystery readers, I like the fact that in the shows (in most cases) the killer is caught in the end.

3:20 PM, May 24, 2007  
Blogger Serket said...

There would probably be less outrage about this, if it was inside of a building. Although I can understand that they need to study the environmental impacts on a body out in the open.

4:22 PM, May 24, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Body farm? I thought that was something like in the movie "Motel Hell" where Rory Calhoun would plant living people in his garden so he could later 'harvest' them for the meat!


5:29 PM, May 24, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think they have enough data on rotting corpses inside of buildings. Those tend to stay put, while the outdoor ones get scattered around by the little animals and are therefore hard to study.

They could put one of these places next to my lot, but I'd want them to build a big-ass security fence around it. I've seen "Night of the Living Dead" too many times...

5:33 PM, May 24, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I second Jeffus' hypothesis. I've always assumed that the "most muder victims are killed by someone they know" statistic was really an artifact of the inablity to solve cases where someone is killed by a total stranger due to a lack of leads available in such cases. Without a "% of murders solved" statistic to judge by, I'll assume that the increase in the number of SOLVED murders where the victim was killed by a stranger is due to advances in forensic technology creating leads where once there were none, rather than an actual change murderers' victim-selection habits.

6:53 PM, May 24, 2007  
Blogger Troy said...

Wouldn't the growth (at least in part) in stranger crime be an adjunct to growing urbanization, etc., looser societal bonds and all that?

12:45 AM, May 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having scientists as neighbors is not a bad thing as compared to other possibilities. I would prefer neighbors who run a body farm over persons who decide to open a hog farm. I have nothing against hog farms, dairy farms, etc., other than I don't want to spend $500,000 for a home adjacent to one. There is a sparkling new subdivision that was recently built in our rural area with lots of open fields and scenic views. The only small issue is that on certain days when the wind is right, the manure smell from area dairy farms surround the residences and make life nearly unbearable. Needless to say the realtors try to sell these nice homes to out-of-towners.

I say be content with the controlled experiments of rotting flesh...

6:03 AM, May 25, 2007  
Blogger Bruce Hayden said...

I am fairly unique in my family in not liking murder mysteries. Not because of the gore, because there typically isn't any, but because I consider them boring and dumb.

But I do like the original CSI and enjoy some of the spinoffs, even David Caruso, though I understand why some think him quite annoying.

My complaint with the Miami and NY varients is that the characters act like normal TV cops with microscopes, whereas the Las Vegas version has scientists working with cops and sometimes carrying guns. But even then, a couple of episodes have pointed out that they aren't cops and shouldn't be pretending to be such.

One thing that I appreciate as an attorney about the shows, and esp. the Las Vegas one, is that they are a lot more realistic about search, seizure, and warrants than you almost ever see on TV cop shows.

What I like is the use of technology. And, interestingly to me, the gore doesn't bother me. Yes, it is very overly optimistic. But it is TV, no worse than any cop, legal, or medical show. Compare the hours and maybe days spent looking for a DNA match to the years of discovery that are skipped when depicting civil litigation.

6:41 AM, May 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, how much of the increase is related to gang/drug violence?

Not that such killings are not cause for concern, but I think what people first think of with stranger murders is something more random, making us all more anxious.

For instance, innocent bystanders killed during drive-by shootings. Those are victims who don't know their murderers.

Or what about the V-Tech shootings? Most of those victims did not know their killer.

Again, not that we shouldn't be concerned about these sorts of killings, but if these are the sorts of things generating the numbers, then it continues to be the case that the risk to the majority of the population is very small.


7:24 AM, May 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: realism in CSI shows.

I wonder how many real CSIs work in dark, claustrophic little labs with glass walls and sexy mood lighting? Doesn't "lab" usually bring to mind solid white decor and blazing fluorescent tubes?

On this subject, I'd have to give NCIS slightly higher marks. At least Duckie keeps the lights on when he's autopsying. Otherwise, no telling what he might trip over in the dark.

9:50 AM, May 25, 2007  
Blogger jeff said...

I don't know how often I've wanted to yell at Grissom et al "Dude - turn on the friggin lights!"

BTW, my wife claims she likes them because of the puzzles they involve.

She detests most of what passes as comedy these days.

6:04 PM, May 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There has been a tendency on the part of authorities to claim "acquaintance" in what were actually stranger crimes. Two cases from Chicago in the late '60s come to mind. There was a rapist working his way thru the Sandburg Village aparment complex who clearly was not known to his victims as he would have been had the apartment complex been a 6-flat, and there was a "fratricide" wherein members of two rival street gangs happened to have an absentee father in common.

6:08 PM, May 25, 2007  
Blogger Troy said...

triticale... those bastards.

7:09 PM, May 25, 2007  
Blogger Marathon Pundit said...

If I remember right from the podcast, Dr. Bass thought having one very far from Tennessee would be best...Upper Midwest, perhaps.

11:02 PM, May 28, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alaska! The bodies will stay frozen and they won't have to worry about finding new ones all the time.

11:32 AM, May 29, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We need body farms. San Marcos, Texas alone has 7 different ecological zones, each affecting the rate of decomposition in different ways. Even Dr. Melbye has said that he wouldn't want a body farm in his back yard....this is not the issue. No one would, and that is why it will not be built near any homes or residences. I think we need to interview Dr. Melbye, TSU and get our stories straight.

9:33 AM, June 18, 2007  
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