SAN MARCOS, Texas (AP) — For more than five weeks, a woman’s body lay undisturbed in a secluded Texas field. Then a frenzied flock of vultures descended on the corpse and reduced it to a skeleton within hours.
But this was not a crime scene lost to nature. It was an important scientific experiment into the way human bodies decompose, and the findings are upending assumptions about decay that have been the basis of homicide cases for decades.
Experienced investigators would normally have interpreted the absence of flesh and the condition of the bones as evidence that the woman had been dead for six months, possibly even a year or more. Now a study of vultures at Texas State University is calling into question many of the benchmarks detectives have long relied on.
The time of death is critical in any murder case. It’s a key piece of evidence that influences the entire investigation, often shaping who becomes a suspect and ultimately who is convicted or exonerated.
“If you say someone did it and you say it was at least a year, could it have been two weeks instead?” said Michelle Hamilton, an assistant professor at the school’s forensic anthropology research facility. “It has larger implications than what we thought initially.”
The vulture study, conducted on 26 acres near the south-central Texas campus, stemmed from previous studies that used dead pigs, which decompose much like humans. Scientists set up a motion-sensing camera that captured the vultures jumping up and down on the woman’s body, breaking some of her ribs, which investigators could also misinterpret as trauma suffered during a beating.
Researchers are monitoring a half-dozen other corpses in various stages of decomposition, and they have a list of about 100 people prepared to donate their bodies to the project, which the school says is the first of its kind to study vultures.