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Identification of Traumatic Injury in Burned Cranial Bone: An Experimental Approach

NCJ Number
Journal of Forensic Sciences Volume: 49 Issue: 3 Dated: May 2004 Pages: 431-440
Elayne J. Pope M.A.; O'Brian C. Smith M.D.
Date Published
May 2004
10 pages
This study attempted to replicate typical structural or vehicular fires to reproduce the heat-related changes in cranial soft tissue and bone with and without the presence of antecedent trauma (ballistic, blunt force, and sharp force).
Although crematoriums may seem ideal for such a study, it is important to use open-air fires to reproduce forensic casework in order to observe and record accurately a continuum of subtle changes as they occur. In the current study, data were collected during all stages of burning and correlated with cremated skeletal remains following fragmentary reconstruction. A total of 40 unembalmed human heads from anatomical gift donations were evaluated for ballistic trauma, blunt-force trauma, sharp-force trauma, and nontraumatized controls. Documentation of time, duration, reactions of tissues, anatomical degradation, and origins of anatomical burn patterns were crucial in understanding how the human head, particularly bone, was consumed by fire. The study first evaluated the thermal fractures in the 10 control crania to establish expected patterns prior to identifying traumatic characteristics. Traumatic injuries of ballistic penetration of skin and bone were documented by using 16 fleshed heads with 17 entrance wounds and 9 exit wounds, followed by reconstruction of burned cranial remains. Following reconstruction of 13 surviving specimens, features of entrance, exit, and associated ballistic trauma were recognizable and interpretable in burned bone. For the study of blunt force trauma, eight heads with both anterior/posterior and medial/lateral sites of impact were examined. Although more subtle to the eye, characteristics features of impact sites -- depressions in bone, inward crushing, and margin from edged weapons -- were found to survive cremation. Sharp force injuries of skin and bone were placed in six heads and reconstructed after burning. Aside from classic ballistic injuries, sharp-force trauma in bone was the easiest to recognize in the post-burn analysis. This report advises, however, that despite the survivability of many traumatic signatures in bone, the harsh conditions of the burning environment, extinguishment methods, collapse of debris, and improper or incomplete recovery techniques can obscure or destroy them. 8 figures and 33 references