Solving crimes may seem like a cinch when binge-watching your favorite mystery show, but it’s not as easy as it looks.
“People get the wrong idea of how professionals determine time of death from shows like ‘CSI,’” said Katherine Weisensee, chair of Clemson’s sociology, anthropology and criminal justice department. “It’s actually extremely difficult, and it often comes down to the level of experience of a forensic investigator. The decomposition process is highly complex and influenced by a wide range of factors that depend on an individual and the environment in which they die.”
A new smartphone app, geoFOR, seeks to make the process easier by aiding coroners and forensic teams in determining time of death. Users will be able to enter observations, photos and other information related to geography and crime scene data when uncovering human or animal remains. According to Weisensee, whose research has informed the app’s development, developers hope the data collected over years of use will allow a near-instant estimate of time of death in the field.
Numerous factors contribute to decomposition, so geoFOR prompts users to input information about the scene, such as clothing, location, insect access, scavengers and apparent trauma, alongside data on decomposition stage and gender, age and body type. The app then automatically factors in information from numerous geographical and environmental databases in order to start building a database on how these specific variables observed on the body overlap with geography and environmental factors.
GeoFOR is currently being beta tested by multiple South Carolina coroners, and Weisensee has applied for additional funding to disseminate it to more users. She said the lack of readily available human remains is a challenge, so she is planning a public version of the app that will allow anyone encountering animal remains, such those found by hikers in wooded areas, to snap a photo and input information to add to the database.
“That information will be just as valuable, and of course it’s easier to find animal bodies,” Weisensee said. “From soil and weather databases to the actual human and animal remains, the data is all out there; we’ve just got to start collecting it.”