Criminal Justice

Vulture Study Raises Questions About Time-of-Death Estimates in Homicides

A study of vultures at a so-called “body farm” is raising questions about traditional time-of-death assumptions used in homicide cases.

The study of human decomposition is being conducted at a 26-acre spread near Texas State University using donated corpses, the Associated Press reports. The story recounts the first time researchers recorded vultures swooping down on a body 37 days after it was placed on the site. Within hours, the corpse was picked clean, and only a skeleton remained.

According to the story, investigators would have interpreted the absence of flesh as an indication the victim had been dead at least six months, and possibly as long as a year. Investigators also might have interpreted broken ribs as indicating a beating; in the study, though, vultures jumping on the body broke some of the ribs.

Retired investigator Jim Huggins tells AP the research is “cutting edge.” Now a forensic science teacher at Baylor University, Huggins says previous research focused on coyotes or rodents. “This is going to, I think, change some minds about scavengers,” he said.

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