A Voice for the Dead: A Forensic Investigator’s Pursuit of the Truth in the Grave, James E. Starrs
ISBN: 0399152253; 304 pages; Putnam Adult (February 17, 2005)
Professor James Starrs is a Professor of Law as well as Professor of Forensic Science at the George Washington University, Washington DC. His work Scientific Evidence in Civil and Criminal Cases is a standard text in its field. Starrs is probably best known for his 1995 exhumation of Jesse James, done in order to verify that the body found in that grave was indeed James. Throughout the years, Starrs has participated in a number of exhumations and subsequent forensic research, and this is the story of five of them, including the James exhumation.
He begins, naturally enough, at the beginning, with the story of his first exhumation, the victims of Alfred Packer. Packer was convicted in 1883 of five counts of murder, then eventually retried and convicted in 1885 of five counts of manslaughter. It was widely believed that he had committed cannibalism, though he was never charged with that particular crime. As with each case discussed the in book, Starrs discusses how he came to hear about the case, and what drove him to take it up. He also talks about the legal hurdles to such an undertaking (pardon the pun), such as finding a relative to secure permission from for the actual exhumation. Equally important, though, are the technical issues, like making sure one finds the right grave, and covering the gravesite with a sunshade during the exhumation, to prevent the sun from drying the bones.
The book reads somewhat like a college lecture, which is unsurprising given Starrs’ professorial background. The reader can almost picture him strolling around the front of a classroom, a piece of chalk carried loosely in the hand as he briefly saunters off on a tangent before returning to the case at hand. In other chapters, the reader might feel as though Starrs is discussing the case at a dinner party, complete with occasional asides regarding different people or aspects of the case.
The cases themselves are fascinating, running the gamut from victims of a 19th century cannibal to Jesse James, Huey Long’s accused assassin Dr. Carl Weiss, and Mary Sullivan, the apparent last victim of the Boston Strangler.
Starrs even manages to include a case where the people he wants to talk to conveniently start dying off just before their appointments with him. Was the CIA involved in the death of Frank Olson? If not, how did he get enough of a running start to push himself through a closed 13th-story window, when the room was too short to allow even a professional athlete to reach the requisite speed? And why was a suicidal man being held in a 13th story hotel room when there was a CIA safe house just a few minutes away?
The final chapter touches on cases Starrs tried to take on and how he was thwarted. Why isn’t Gouverneur Morris, the author of much of the US Constitution, buried in the casket that is in his tomb? Did explorer Meriwether Lewis die by his own hand? Why is the National Park Service preventing an exhumation that could answer that question? What about Lizzie Borden’s parents? Why did the Falls River Historical Society stymie his efforts to learn more about their deaths?
This book is a great read for those who watch every episode of CSI, or anyone who wishes they could. Starrs does a wonderful job of conveying the human side of exhumations, while conveying just enough scientific knowledge to whet the appetites of those who enjoy the technical side of CSI as much as the human drama.