Identification of the deceased: A retrospective review of forensic anthropology Cape Town casework

Master Thesis


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A serious issue faced in South Africa is the identification of unknown persons, particularly those who are decomposed, skeletonised or burnt. In this regard, Forensic Anthropology Cape Town (FACT), a service provider at the University of Cape Town (UCT), has assisted with identification. Data pertaining to anthropologically analysed cases in the Western Cape (WC) province is lacking and little is known about the contribution FACT has made to local forensic investigations. Thus, this study sought to identify the profile of FACT cases and evaluate their impact on police case resolution and identification. Cases referred to FACT between 2006 – 2018 from Forensic Pathology Services (FPS) were retrospectively reviewed (n = 208). Univariate, bivariate and multivariate statistical analyses were performed to find patterns in the data. Of these, 172 were of forensic relevance. There was a predominance of men (67%), and adults older than 35 years (54%). Regarding ancestry, 37% of decedents were of Mixed ancestry, 22% were of African ancestry and 3% were of European ancestry. Ante- and perimortem injuries were observed in 41% and 29% of decedents, respectively. Most decedents (51%) were discovered in high crime police precincts; however, a significant number were also found in low crime sparsely populated areas (47%), popular for recreational activities. These findings highlighted common areas for the discovery of decomposed bodies that may guide future forensic taphonomic research to better understand local decomposition rates. Positive identifications were reached for 37% of decedents, and of these, anthropological estimations were correct in 98% cases for sex, 84% for age-at-death, 80% for ancestry and 100% for stature. Communication issues between relevant stakeholders, the discretion of the authorities (when FACT would be consulted) and the availability of FACT members or resources (e.g., transport for the body to FACT laboratory) were among the main factors impacting FACT consultations and analysis; indicating that the legislation of forensic anthropology in South Africa is needed. Nevertheless, where identifications were subsequently made, the demographic estimations showed a high level of accuracy, suggesting that the anthropological techniques employed by FACT perform well in local forensic casework and FACT is assisting with social and criminal justice.