Transitional justice has come to increasingly rely on forensic anthropology to provide objective, scientific proof of war-time violence, which can then be corroborated against witness testimonies. But in the process of assembling and interpreting data, how are forensic investigations influenced by moral and legal responsibilities? This project, which trains a graduate in methods of rigorous, empirically-grounded scientific fieldwork, examines how forensic teams must juggle their legal obligations to provide material evidence for criminal trials on the one hand, and their moral responsibilities to the bereaved relatives of the deceased on the other, meanwhile maintaining standards of scientific neutrality. Furthermore, findings from this research will contribute to existing forensic science models within the United States by stressing the importance of studying patterns of skeletal trauma across individuals in cases with multiple victims, such as serial murder cases, plane crashes, and natural disasters.
New York University doctoral candidate, Jennifer Trowbridge, under the supervision of Dr. Sally Engle Merry, will conduct research on forensic investigations of war crimes' victims in Colombia. Ongoing peace talks between the Colombian state and the long-standing guerilla organization, the FARC, suggest Colombia's emergence as a country engaged in transitional justice processes. As the country moves from war to peace, increasing space is opening up for relatives of the deceased to demand the exhumation, identification, and return of their loved ones' remains. The researcher hypothesizes that in order to understand patterns of mass political violence, forensic investigations require an interaction with testimonial accounts of violence that address the complex social transformations brought about by war. The Colombian gravesite provides an ideal location to examine the interactions between forensic science investigations, legal mechanisms designed to advance democratic stability, and shifts in collective identity among communities victimized by mass violence. Such an understanding takes on particular importance given US diplomatic and financial commitments to help resolve Colombia's political strife since the beginning of "Plan Colombia" in 1999. Methods of data collection and analysis include an ethnographic investigation of forensic investigation practice through the process of preliminary investigation, exhumation, laboratory analysis, and repatriation of remains. The researcher will engage in participation observation and interviews with forensic and other state and legal investigators, organizations, and families of the deceased, as well as a textual and visual analysis of forensic case reports. Findings from this study will advance cultural anthropology and law and social sciences, particularly in the areas of forensic anthropology, biological anthropology, bioarcheology, and science and technology studies.