I learned very early in my career that some “experts” don’t know what they’re talking about.
After my general pathology residency but before I began a forensic pathology fellowship, the coroner in Peoria, Illinois, hired me to do his autopsies. I wasn’t qualified for the job, but nobody in the area had forensic training.
One summer morning, a dog started pawing at loose earth in a local park. When a tiny foot emerged from a shallow grave, the dog’s owner called the police. The decomposing body of a newborn was brought to me for autopsy.
I couldn’t tell much. The baby boy had no injuries, but I could neither prove nor eliminate the possibility that he’d been gently suffocated. I couldn’t say whether or not he’d been born alive. I couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead when he was buried. Nothing indicated whose child he was.
“Is he black or white?” the coroner asked. He seemed dumbfounded when I said I didn’t know of any way to tell.
The physical features anthropologists use to designate race – predominantly skull and facial bone structure – are undeveloped in a newborn. The outer layers of the child’s skin were sloughed and degraded by the decomposition process, and we’re all pink underneath.
Genomic sequencing hadn’t been developed. Even if it had, DNA corresponds very imperfectly to the divisions we call “race.”
A couple of weeks after the autopsy, the coroner called me into his office, greatly excited. He’d made phone calls and found a university professor in a neighboring state who claimed he could determine race by examining skin under the microscope. He would count the baby’s melanocytes – skin cells that produce the dark pigment melanin. The number would tell him the baby’s race.
The coroner wasn’t pleased when I laughed out loud at the professor’s proposed “race test.”
Everybody has approximately the same number of melanocytes. These cells influence skin tone by the type and amount of pigment they produce and by the nature of the connections through which pigment is distributed to other skin cells.
Pigments other than melanin also influence skin color, as do age, disease, medications, sun exposure and other factors.
No isolated measure of skin tone proves race, anyway. A subjective impression of pigmentation from looking at skin with a light microscope would be of no more use than visual inspection of a swatch of skin without consideration of other anatomical features.
Neither technique could identify people of mixed race or differentiate them from individuals from the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent or other parts of the world where Caucasian skin tones come in all shades of brown. Peoria had plenty of brown people.
But I couldn’t convince the coroner. “Send him what he wants,” he said with a scowl. “He’s a professor.”
I said I couldn’t.
The outer part of the baby’s skin that contained the cells the professor wanted to count had decomposed.
“Oh,” the coroner said, crestfallen. “Now, we’ll never know.”
Coroners in Illinois, like those in Colorado, aren’t required to have formal medical training. The coroner in Peoria respected and envied the highly educated and couldn’t imagine that a “professor” might be wrong.
When people with impressive credentials espouse bogus theories, they can often persuade coroners, district attorneys and courts.
Scientifically untrained judges and juries are supposed to differentiate good science from bad, but they can’t.
The justice system does a frighteningly poor job of recognizing and ignoring bad science.
Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.