Oklahoma Forensic Anthropologist Analyzes Criminal Evidence in Famous Cases

August 6, 2009

Not often do criminal defense lawyers face expert witnesses in the field of forensic anthropology.  This is a field requiring years of tedious work on just one subject, and there are few people who qualify in the field as experts.  Clyde Snow is one of them, and he lives in the Oklahoma City area.

Snow, whom some call the “father of forensic anthropology,” has confirmed skeletal remains of such well-known figures as Tutankhamun, the king from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, Dr. Joseph Mengele of Nazi war-crime infamy, and those of President John F. Kennedy.

Snow served as a consultant on the remains found under the house of John Wayne Gacy, who murdered 33 boys and young men from 1972 to 1979 in suburban Chicago.  He found that all but one of these victims had been suffocated, some with plastic bags over their heads and others with ligature strangulation.

Snow even investigated Kurdish deaths in Iraq and testified in Saddam Hussein’s trial.  In 1991, after the first Gulf War, Snow went to Kurdistan, sponsored by Middle East Watch to document some of the gas attacks Hussein ordered in 1988 and 1989.  With a team of Argentine, Guatemalan and Chilean forensic anthropologists he had trained over the years.  They exhumed some mass graves and examined and documented the skeletons.  They took samples from bomb craters in a village that had undergone a chemical attack on which several people were killed and many injured.

The investigators sent the samples to Porton Down in England for analysis.  They found there were traces of serum gas.  This was important to prove that a complex chemical like serum had persisted long enough to be traced, but no one suspected at that time that this evidence would ever be used in any court proceedings.

Nearly 15 years later Saddam Hussein was brought to trial in Iraq.  Snow was called as a witness for the prosecution and asked to present this evidence. And, unlike any other trial Snow had testified in, the accused himself was allowed to cross-examine Snow.  Saddam immediately challenged Snow.  He said Iraq was full of mass graves and asked how Snow knew that ones I had described were not those of Sumerians from thousands of years ago.

Snow had a powerful answer.  He pointed out that the Sumerians had a rich civilization but not likely so advanced that its people wore digital wristwatches such as those found on the Kurdish skeletons.  Furthermore, it was unlikely that the wristwatches of Sumerians, if that is what they were, would all have stopped on August 28, 1988.  Of course, Saddam Hussein went on meaninglessly after that, and the judge had to have him sit down.

During training of his forensic team some of students he was training in Argentina would break down with emotion at a mass grave or morgue.  Snow had to give them some tough love at that point, insisting they cry at home to allow them to go on with their work, to perform professionally regardless of the obvious human tragedies they were witnessing.  But they can have some fun, as well, like when they searched for bodies of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

In the Bolivian village of San Vicente, they found a graveyard where the two were supposed to be buried.  They exhumed two skeletons and took one of them back to the United States.  There they extracted DNA, which excluded either Butch or Sundance on genetic evidence.  It turns out the skeleton was that of a German named Zimmerman, an engineer in a mining company in Bolivia. He had died about the same time by accidental gunshot.

At the age of 81, Snow continues.  Most recently he has been testifying in a trial regarding the alleged extrajudicial executions in 1998 of hostages-takers in the siege in the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru. Snow is a true professional, contributing much to the criminal justice system over the years,  and we Oklahomans are proud to claim him as one of our own.

Is the FBI Taking Away More Rights from Citizens and Becoming “Big Brother”?

October 17, 2008

The Attorney General of the United States has just released new guidelines governing FBI investigations. Attorney General Michael Mukasey signed the guidelines, which replace existing guidelines for five types of investigations: general criminal, national security, foreign intelligence, civil disorders and demonstrations. Immediately, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for ignoring calls for more, not less, protection for Americans’ rights, citing both the FBI’s and Department of Justice’s records of internal abuses.

The new guidelines reduce standards required to begin “assessments”, that is precursors to investigations, for conducting surveillance and gathering evidence. Thus the threshold to begin investigations across the board will be lowered. Further, the new guidelines allow the FBI to use a person’s race or ethnic background as a factor in opening an investigation.

The Executive Director of the ACLU, Anthony D. Romero, said: “The new guidelines provide no safeguards against the FBI’s improperly using race and religion as grounds for suspicion. They also fail to sufficiently prevent the government from infiltrating groups whose view points it doesn’t like. The FBI has shown time and time again that it is incapable of policing itself and there is good reason to believe that these guidelines will lead to more abuse.”

In the 1970’s, the FBI adopted internal guidelines after investigations revealed widespread abuses and violations of constitutional rights by the FBI, including the clearly politically-motivated spying on public figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. Those guidelines governed very different types of investigations, and tearing down the walls between those different types of investigations, as the new guidelines do, means the new powers will be applied in new types of investigations where they never were before. Of course, the FBI claims the new guidelines would not give agents new authority.

The Washington office of the ACLU was quoted as saying: “It is naive to think these guidelines will not result in abuse….the DOJ and FBI…are only doomed to repeat the abuses of the past…the FBI will be given carte blanche to begin surveillance without factual evidence. The standard of suspicion is so low that the predicate for investigations so flimsy that it’s inevitable we will all become suspects.”

The FBI is focusing only on “the threat”, meaning the targets of their investigations. The FBI always wants more power to use against the bad guys, and there are always bad guys to get. There is always some excuse de jour for unleashing law enforcement’s powers. They forget that this is the very danger foreseen by our Founding Fathers, the danger to citizens from an overly-muscled law enforcement. Our Founding Fathers knew that a greater danger to citizens than criminals was from police without restraints.

Law enforcement will always continue to push, to find excuses in this and that particular, discover some excuse to suspend or diminish another small area of citizen protection until the protections of the Constitution will be whittled away little by little until gone. If we cannot keep government restraints, we cannot preserve our Constitution. Yes, the issue is about good guys vs. bad guys. But the long term, more fundamental issue is permitting some bad guys to get away, as they inevitably will, so that we preserve restraints on the police. The only sure way to get all the bad guys is to turn the United States into Nazi Germany. That was a very efficient government with absolutely no restraints to stand in the way of law enforcement.