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.

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