Bugs for the Prosecution
The job of the forensic entomologist is to interpret these various relationships in order to offer information to law enforcement officers that will assist in leads. "At present," says Goff, "entomology is relatively well accepted by crime scene investigators. When I first began, we were regarded as having limited value. Over the years, with educational outreach and careful work, we have become a recognized discipline."
For research—since there's only one Body Farm at this time—he relies on pigs. "I have selected sites for my studies based on the records of localities in which bodies have been encountered. For each study, I use three pigs. One is placed directly on the ground, or on whatever substrate I'm investigating. This pig is left undisturbed for the duration of the study. A second pig is placed onto a welded wire mesh weight platform. This pig is used to determine the rate of biomass removal by weight and will be weighed each time the site is visited. It's also equipped with thermocouple probes inserted into the mouth, abdomen and anus to determine changes in internal temperatures related to decomposition. The third pig is also put on a welded wire mesh platform placed directly on the substrate. This pig serves for sampling of insects and other arthropods. Equipment for recording climatic data is placed at each site, including rain gauge and hygrothermograph."
They then record all factors and add their results into an expanding database.
What Goff finds satisfying about this work is its immediate and practical application. "In many of my academic research projects, I never see any application of the results. Here I see an actual situation and a resolution. I must admit to a certain level of excitement in participating—I'm only human—but I never allow this to interfere with my objectivity."
In 1984, he and several other forensic entomologists began meeting informally, and eventually they decided to form a certifying board. "We modeled ourselves after similar boards in anthropology, odontology and pathology. It was finally incorporated in the State of Nevada in 1996 as the American Board of Forensic Entomology."
In the future, Goff believes that advances in technology will make a significant contribution to the discipline. "For example," he says, "the use of DNA technology to identify immature specimens and extract material from gut contents to allow for individualization of both suspects and victims. Also, we need to focus on standardizing techniques for determining basic life cycles. At present, the data are quite varied, leaving gaps when cases come to trial. Yet even within the relatively new area of drug detection, there have been improvements that allow for more precise analyses. I think it's going to get even more exciting in the relatively near future."
Forensic anthropologists appear to have a considerable range of skills for assisting in death investigations. From art to bugs to bones, they make their mark.