This is a Forensic Anthropology project submission, so I hope you enjoy!
Below is a transcript of the audio:
In the following analysis, I will be examining a regional cold case through the lens of a forensic anthropologist, specifically the homicide of Brittany Brown.
This analysis will cover a possible timeline leading up to her death, the steps taken to identify her, examining autopsy findings & injuries, and hypotheses of the possible circumstances that caused her death.
As with all murder cases, care should be taken to treat those deceased with the utmost respect and empathy. Throughout this analysis, I will do my best to speak of Brittany Brown with care and consideration.
The analysis will conclude with an examination as to why a murder, such as this continues to be unsolved. In addition, further questions as to why murders of women of color predominantly go unsolved.
The date is March 22nd 2014, in Detroit, Michigan. On the 15000th block of Kentucky Street. In a duffle bag is a body bound and burned. Her name is Brittany Brown. She is a 26-year old black woman and the mother of two little boys.
According to her mother, she was a well-liked woman in her community, but she really mostly kept to herself, and I am sure that has a lot to do with the fact that she was busy raising two little boys.
When they found her body, it was believed that she was raped because the body was found with no remnants of any clothing.
So, let’s talk about the last time Brittany Brown was seen.
Investigators had reportedly said that Brittany was spotted near I-96 and Telegraph Road before her death. But it is unclear when exactly the sighting took place. Whether it was a month before her disappearance or a couple weeks beforehand.
Her body was found by a passerby one month after she disappeared. And along the road of Telegraph, there are hundreds of gas stations and truck stops, and I’m not quick to assume that she had been trying to meet someone, possibly for drugs or an exchange, that does happen.
But from what her family has said, they elaborated heavily that Brittany was bipolar and could have been easily led astray, especially if she was experiencing some sort of psychosis.
This could have led her into some very dangerous situations. And it is unsure if she had a physician to treat her illness, and who knows what she was going through. What was going through ahead, and where she was headed when she was seen.
Because this death was not a result of natural causes, and she was not under the care of a physician, and she had no known physical illnesses. This makes the case a high medical legal priority, meaning that we need to conduct an examination to answer the questions of why, how and when she had died.
It is unclear if Brittany was sat on fire para-mortem or post-mortem. Meaning, that we do not have the information to know if the fire was the cause of her death, or if the fire was used as an attempt to destroy her remains. And the examination process will answer a lot of these questions for us.
Police suggest that she was tortured, leading me to believe that the fire on top of her other injuries could have been the cause of death.
But we can take a closer look into the examination process and hopefully get some more answers. That is why we are here today. To talk about some of the ways that I, as a forensic anthropologist, would have been able to decipher some of these horrific injuries.
But first, I would like to talk about victims of fatal fire injuries.
Burning can have a profound effect on the appearance of bone and increase its susceptibility to mechanical damage. Meaning that it is going to be easily damaged if moved, and this can make identifying homicide victims who had been burned very difficult to transport without destroying some of the remains, which are evidence.
When the body is burned, most hair and fingerprints are unrecognizable, and depending on the severity of the burns, dental records would be a quick way to identify the victim.
Through these dental methods, I can also observe tooth formation to determine the individuals age. From observations, there are only permanent teeth present, leading me to believe that this individual is at least 25years of age.
This is because tooth formation can last through teenage years, but is almost always complete before the person’s mid-twenties.
So, moving on to more profiling procedures and further estimation of cause of death.
The investigation of the remains does not end with just that. We still need to uncover exactly how she died, examining the body externally for any signs of injuries before the fire.
This means that we would need to conduct a full examination of just the physical body before autopsy occurs to see if there are any indications, any suggestions of any other injuries besides just the burns alone.
But once we’ve conducted the physical examination, we still need to conduct the autopsy process. And once that has started, I can start making observations on internal clues and injuries. Now, as a forensic anthropologist, I am not qualified to conduct the autopsy, but I would have a forensic pathologist there, and I would help them make observations after the body is opened, just to further understand how
Brittany’s life was stolen.
Having a thorough understanding of the stages of decomposition will give me a better idea of how long she had been deceased.
The burns can dramatically affect these stages, but Brittany was not burned to ash. So, with her body still intact for the most part, we can say that Brittany had been missing much longer than she had been deceased. Putting my estimation at a stage three of decomposition, or I can say that when she was found, she had only been deceased for about five days.
Now, moving on to the internal examination. Once the autopsy process has started, I can start making observations about internal clues and injuries. Since I am not qualified to perform the autopsy, the physical opening of the body. As a forensic anthropologist, I would have a forensic pathologist do that for me, and then I would conduct the examination from then on out.
I would want to ask myself a few questions. Am I going to find any trauma evident on the bones to establish the type of and extent of the injuries? I would want to first look at the skull for any types of head injuries, non-fatal or fatal. These non-fatal injuries are very common among homicide victims, para-mortem. They’re used to render victim’s unconscious, makes them easier to move, less conspicuous during abduction. But, also looking for fatal head injuries that would indicate to me that death occurred before the fire.
After examining the head and the skull, I would want to look for any other signs indicating that she was deceased before the fire. Was she choked? Was she suffocated? I could look for fractured bones, like the hyoid bone that is commonly fractured when someone puts their hands around your neck.
Through this further examination of the bones, I also notice that the epiphysis connecting joints together are fully fused. While the skeleton of a person is still growing, the joints need more flexibility to adjust to this growth. So, this individual is certainly an adult.
And what of the sex of the individual? Examining the pelvis is the most certain way to do this. I see that the ventral arc is present, female. I know this is because it is a noticeable and distinct difference in the male and female skeletal systems.
Continuing the examination process, I would want to check the bones for any and all indications, any differences that would set her apart from anyone else. This could help us further identify her, making sure that this is the person that we are looking for, this is Brittany Brown.
There are other indications that I could think about of whether or not the fire was the cause of death, but we would have to look even further internally and looking at the organs especially the lungs, but because, again, I am not qualified to do those autopsies, I would want to wait until results came back from the pathologist to find out if there’s any indication of smoke inhalation with thermal damage, and soot in the lungs, that we could say that the fire was indeed the cause of death – because she would have been breathing that smoke in as she died.
To say this murder is horrific is an understatement. So why do these murders go unsolved?
Why did this go unsolved? Who is talking about this? And why should we care about these cases?
So, through my research, I found what I think is a relevant quote from a retired police officer from the NYPD. Vernon Gerberth says that standards for charging someone are higher now, and they’re too high. It’s becoming too hard to indict people with criminal charges because we are putting laws on top of more laws, on top of more laws.
Prosecutors nowadays demand that police deliver these open and shut cases that will lead to quick plea bargains because they don’t want to spend so much time on these cases when there are so many happening all at once.
Apart from the justice system, there is a particular distrust that is coming from communities and an increasing distrust in law enforcement. And this creates a divide between the public and police officers – especially in communities of minority and marginalized people where we should be building a trust within higher crime communities. This will create better communication about suspicious or criminal activity and lead to more effective investigations.
More currently on March 22nd 2023, Brittany Brown’s family has held a candlelight vigil to continue spreading this awareness about her murder and murders just like this one.
Nine years later. And there has been no word. No idea of who could have possibly committed this atrocious murder. And murders like this one go unsolved all too often.
In fact, if you yourself are murdered, there’s only a one in third chance that your case would be solved here in America.
In addition, Chery L. Neely in her book, “You’re Dead – So What?” states that black women are almost two and a half times more likely to be a homicide victim than their white counterparts.
So what is the probable impact of crimes against black women being underrepresented in the media when the reality is that they are more likely to be victims of homicide than their white counterparts?
Neely states that, unsurprisingly, it is a false sense of security in the face of very real and grave danger. Some black and latino women living in New York City, interviewed by researchers regarding the effects of media and images of crime victims indicated that they had less fear of crime because they falsely believed white women to be the most common victims of homicide based on the extensive and continuous media coverage of white female victims.
Brittany Brown’s murder was one nightmare tragedy among many that go without justice. Forensic anthropologists can use their skill set to help continue further positively identifying these victims to lead to the capture and arrests of the people that commit these crimes.
Doing what they are best at, forensic anthropologists can present crucial bodily evidence in a court of law to truthfully and factually convict murderers like Brittany Browns.
These individuals who go forgotten deserve much more than to be another story lost within media, a media who decides who gets to hear their story.
Online references for this presentation include articles from Fox to Detroit, NPR, and click on Detroit News.
Further references from texts: Neely’s “You’re Dead – So What? Media, Police, and the Invisibility of Black Women as Victims of Homicide” and Baldry and Roberts “Disposal of a Homicide Victim by Dismemberment and Burning”