Baylor professors and students use forensic science to identify the deceased along Texas border
In Del Rio, Texas, about five miles from the Mexican border, lies Westlawn Cemetery, a place where the poor and lost are buried in unmarked graves, their identities unknown. A group of Baylor professors and students hope to give those buried there a name and return them to their loved ones.
Dr. Lori Baker, BA '93, MA '94, associate professor of anthropology at Baylor, forensic science lecturer Jim Huggins and 18 students exhumed remains at the cemetery and performed DNA analysis to help identify the deceased.
After exhuming the graves, students worked in teams to analyze the remains and are in the process of performing a full anthropological analysis to determine age, sex, ancestry and stature of the deceased, measuring and completing 3-D scans of the bones at laboratories at Baylor and Texas State University.
During the summer field school in Del Rio, the team unearthed six deceased to be identified along with the remains of a baby. "I am hoping that we will be able to go back and see if the mother was also buried in the cemetery near the baby," Baker said.
The DNA analysis will be included in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) and the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and shared with officials in Del Rio and the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs with the goal of positive identification and repatriation of the remains to their families in Mexico.
For Baker, the field school is a unique opportunity for students to learn and have an impact on others.
"No one else in the United States is doing this right now -- taking students on a field school to identify the undocumented population that have died while crossing the border. This is unique," said Baker. "This field school has allowed the students to learn with hands-on experience how to locate and recover human remains in a forensic context. They are learning how to analyze the remains in order to learn all that they can from the deceased and how to look for signs of antemortem and post-mortem trauma. There is no better learning experience that we can provide for them. The field school also provided an opportunity for the students to work in a humanitarian effort that has the potential to significantly affect others."
Although this is Huggins' first field school of this type, his almost 30-year career in law enforcement has allowed him to experience exhumations as part of forensic criminal investigations. He believes experience is the best teacher for the students. "This type of project provides real-world experience for students who aspire to become anthropologists and forensic scientists as well as those who desire to serve in a worthwhile project," Huggins said.
Baker, who was recently featured in a four-part series on the National Geographic Channel called "The Decrypters," has examined the remains of roughly 300 unidentified, undocumented immigrants, with a result of 70 direct identifications and subsequent repatriations as part of her Reuniting Families Program. She hopes to help families heal after the loss of their loved ones.
"The families are left without knowledge of what became of their loved ones. These deceased individuals are buried without names, and as long as they are buried, there is no further action to find their identities," Baker said. "We will do all we can to give them names and to get them back to their families. We hope that the closure will bring peace to the families."