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Friday, July 5, 2013

Criminal Justice Quote: Forensic Entomology

     Not until the 1980s would an American entomologist add the line "Forensic Consultant" to his curriculum vitae. Yet, whenever modern-day forensic entomologists step before an audience--be it a jury, college class, or a room full of homicide detectives--they invariably introduce their science as "ancient," nearly 800 years old. They trace its first known use to a tale of murder by slashing recorded in Sung Tz'u's thirteenth-century Chinese detective manual, Hsi Yuan Chi Lu (The Washing Away of Wrongs).

     On a sweltering afternoon, a group of farmers returning from their fields outside a small Chinese village found the slashed and bloodied body of a neighbor by the roadside. Fearing bandits, they sent for the provincial death investigator, who arrived to convene an official inquest. "Robbers merely want men to die so that they can take their valuables," he informed the gathered crowd. "Now the personal effects are there, while the body bears many wounds. If this is not a case of being killed by a hateful enemy, then what is it?" Nonetheless, questioning the victim's wife revealed no known enemies, at worst some hard feelings with a neighbor to whom her husband owed money. On hearing this, the official ordered everyone in the neighborhood to bring their farm sickles for examination, warning that any hidden sickle would be considered a confession to murder. Within an hour, the detective had seventy to eighty blades laid before him on the town square. "The weather was hot," Sung Tz'u notes. "And the flies flew about and gathered on one sickle," presumably attracted by invisible traces of flesh and blood.

Jessica Snyder Sachs, Corpse: Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, 2001

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