Criminality, Narrative and the Expert Witness in American Biohistory

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This article considers forensic anthropologists’ roles in negotiating the concept of criminality in biohistorical cases, those investigations of the famous and infamous dead that are driven by public interest rather than traditional medicolegal relevance. We review three biohistorical cases from the United States: the purported skull of a martyred Catholic priest from sixteenth century Georgia, the Mountain Meadows Massacre that occurred in Utah in the mid-nineteenth century, and the search for Billy the Kid’s grave in New Mexico. We find that anthropologists have active and passive roles in the manufacture, assignment, and sometimes denial of criminality in these cases. Additionally we explore how the analysis and discussion of violence in these biohistorical cases reflects two concepts that are distinctive to United States’ history, notably manifest destiny and the idea of closure in historical narratives. The perception that the present order is a natural culmination of history, and that the past is truly past underestimates the relevance and impact of labelling past personages as criminals to contemporary culture. As a result, forensic anthropologists’ negotiation of criminality in U.S. biohistorical cases is fraught with nebulous ethical challenges and tangible consequences.