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Spartan Death Detective - MSU Forensic Anthropologist has crime solving in his bones

October 30, 2019
Joe Hefner

In the classroom, JOE HEFNER leads one of only six forensic anthropology doctoral programs in the nation. In the lab, he has developed new ways for researchers around the world to identify and classify human skeletal remains. In the field and at crime scenes, he and his team use their expertise to help unravel complex crime scenes — from homicides to Ground Zero following 9/11.

Joe Hefner

Hefner and his colleague, Todd Fenton, chairperson of the anthropology department, are the only board-certified forensic anthropologists in the state of Michigan and two of just 130 in the United States.

On the scene of a crime

Hefner is often called upon by police departments at a moment’s notice to travel to a crime scene and examine a body before it goes to a medical examiner’s office. He says he treats crime scenes as archeological sites while he looks inch by inch to gather evidence and information that will later be applied to his skeletal examination.

ON THE SCENE OF A CRIME

Hefner is often called upon by police departments at a moment’s notice to travel to a crime scene and examine a body before it goes to a medical examiner’s office. He says he treats crime scenes as archeological sites while he looks inch by inch to gather evidence and information that will later be applied to his skeletal examination.

He approaches every scene wanting to answer two questions: “Who is it?” and “What happened?”

Every fragment of every bone in a skeleton is a piece to the complex puzzles that Hefner has made a career of solving. Everything from bone density to skull shape plays a part in how he and the team at MSU piece together the story behind the crime.

Hefner uses X-rays to find tiny fractures or anomalies to compare against medical records, intricate dental exams to find cavities or abnormalities that he can compare to dental records, as well as forensic genealogy to narrow down potential identifications. By looking at a skull, he can even determine ancestry based on slight variations in shape.

One at a time, Hefner carefully examines more than 200 bones in the human skeleton and "puts the body back together," he says, to interpret trauma and look at scientific clues throughout the skeleton. "An injury to the head from a baseball bat is drastically different than one from a tool, like a hammer; a cut from a knife is different than a saw; the force from one type of vehicle on the body is completely different than another," he says.

Human Skull

Creating the gold standard for forensics

Using tens of thousands of donated bones over years of research, Hefner built the Macromorphoscopic Databank, the only comprehensive database exclusively for skull morphology.

Hefner’s reference database gives researchers the ability to catalogue, collect and compare data on “macromorphoscopic traits,” which are details of the skull, such as size and shape, connected to a person’s ancestry. Forensic scientists from around the world use Hefner’s database as a reference to identify characteristics in bones that they are using in their own research.

Hefner and skeleton

In the classroom

Hefner’s students get hands-on experience unlike any other on campus. By working in the lab on smaller cases, learning from and practicing the methods Hefner has perfected over the years, they’re prepared for success.

“Before my students graduate, I want them to be able to feel a bone fragment from the human body and identify it without even looking,” he says. “That’s how skilled they should be before pursuing their next chapters in this field.”

Graduate students in his lab, he says, live an on-call lifestyle like his own, as calls from police departments and medical examiners come in at all hours of the day and night. They accompany him to crime scenes, both observing and assisting in the excavation process. Once bodies come to the lab, they are responsible for macerating the soft tissue to uncover the skeletal remains.

When analyzing bones, Hefner treats his students as partners, giving them access to all the tools and resources of the lab and having them contribute to the process. They also are responsible for helping maintain Hefner’s database with statistics they have collected from around the world and from every case they close.

Hefner and skeleton

The photographed skeletal material represent individuals who opted to donate their body for scientific research. These materials are used for educational purposes and are respectfully handled and diligently curated by the MSU Forensic Anthropology Laboratory.

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