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History and Theory

Technology and Forensic Evidence: Chilean Human Rights Investigations

History and Theory
13 Apr, 2017

Technology and Forensic Evidence: Chilean Human Rights Investigations


Updated April 18, 2017: An HTNM Revisited post is available below the original event information.


In 1991, Chilean forensic scientists began the exhumation of 126 skeletons from Patio 29, a plot in the General Cemetery where the military ordered the burial of hundreds the disappeared and executed. The exhumations began shortly after Chile returned to democracy and provided proof of the human rights crimes that had taken place during the Pinochet dictatorship. By 2002, the Chilean government had identified 96 of these skeletons and returned them to the families. However, in 2006 the Chilean government announced that the scientists had misidentified at least half of these skeletons. The causes of the errors were multiple and arguably systemic. However, part of the blame can be attributed to a technique the SML used in its many of its identifications: craniofacial superimposition. This paper tells the story of how craniofacial superimposition became an advanced identification technique used by the SML and why SML scientists opted to put their trust in this technique instead of techniques grounded in the emerging field of DNA analysis. Telling this story requires broadening the frame of analysis to study the transnational movement of techniques, technologies, and experts. It connects the history of forensic identification in Chile to that of China, Scotland, Brazil, Spain, and the United States and uses this history to shed new light on why mistakes were made.

Eden Medina is Associate Professor of Informatics and Computing, Affiliated Associate Professor of Law, and Adjunct Associate Professor of History at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research and teaching address the social, historical, and legal dimensions of our increasingly data-driven world, including the relationship of technology to human rights and free expression, the relationship of political innovation and technological innovation, and the ways that human and political values shape technological design. Medina’s writings also use science and technology as a way to broaden understandings of Latin American history and the geography of innovation. She is the author of the prizewinning book Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile and the co-editor of Beyond Imported Magic: Essays on Science, Technology and Society in Latin America. Her current monograph in progress studies the history of forensic identification in Chile and the connection of science and technology to processes of truth, reparation, and justice.

The History and Theory of New Media Lecture Series brings to campus leading humanities scholars working on issues of media transition and technological emergence. The series promotes new, interdisciplinary approaches to questions about the uses, meanings, causes, and effects of rapid or dramatic shifts in techno-infrastructure, information management, and forms of mediated expression. Presented by the Berkeley Center for New Media, these events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit: http://htnm-berkeley.com/

------------------- HTNM REVISITED POSTED ONLINE 4/18/17 -------------------

Miyoko Conley (TDPS) recaps an amazing talk by Edina Medina in the History and Theory of New Media Lecture Series.

The 2016-2017 History and Theory of New Media Lecture Series ended on April 13, 2017, with a stimulating lecture by Prof. Eden Medina, entitled “Technology and Forensic Evidence in Chilean Human Rights Investigations.” Eden Medina is an Associate Professor of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, with joint appointments in both Law and History. The talk she gave is part of her upcoming book project on the history of forensic identification in Chile, and how science and technology have shaped the processes of justice and reparation in the aftermath of human rights crimes during the Pinochet dictatorship.

The talk focused on the technique of craniofacial superimposition used by Chilean scientists for the identification of 126 bodies from Patio 29, a general cemetery plot where the military buried hundreds of disappeared and executed. These bodies then became part of the evidence that human rights crimes had taken place during the Pinochet dictatorship, and identification became a way for the victims’ families to receive a form of closure, when other legal avenues of prosecution were not an option for them. However, though bodies had been identified and returned starting in 1991, in 2006, the government reported that over half of the bodies had been misidentified. The reasons for the misidentifications are numerous, but Medina’s talk focused on the way that craniofacial superimposition factored into the story.

Craniofacial superimposition is an identification technique that overlays images of the deceased with images of the skull. Though the technique is based in the alignment of numerous calculated points on both the facial and cranial images, Medina’s use of the documentary Fernando ha vuelto (1998) showed how compelling the technique is because of its supposed visual confirmation. The documentary traces the identification of one of the disappeared, Fernando Olivares, and the personal experiences of his family. Medina drew attention to the fact that besides the scientists’ trust in the technique itself, it is convincing because of its accessibility, most notably its visual accessibility; the way the image lines up with the skull is a way for the victims to see the evidence.

However, the story of craniofacial superimposition in Chile is also a transnational story. Though an older technique prior to computerization, craniofacial superimposition became computerized, and the system used in the documentary was developed by a Chinese engineer named Yuwen Lan. This is one of the several transnational threads Medina connected in the talk that destabilizes center-periphery paradigms of scientific knowledge flow. However, it also shows how machines and computerization factored into the credibility of the technique, as Lan wanted to computerize the technique to avoid “subjective interpretation”; in short, the decision-making process was placed onto a machine.

This and other forms of evidence, for example a celebratory New York Times headline “Computers Help Chilean Dead Tell Their Tales,” show how there was a tendency to interchange 100% alignment with 100% certainty in identification, even though the technique is recognized as more one of exclusion rather than confirmation. It allowed the scientists to ground decisions partly in a machine, and the machine added to scientific credibility, while at the same time preserving the expertise of the pathologist. After the scandal in 2006, the current methodology used by the Medical Legal Service is through DNA samples, now considered the gold-standard in identification.

However, more than just “bad science,” Medina’s talk illuminated several interconnecting threads as to the complexity of identification during this time that led to errors, such as scientists not being given proper resources, pressures from human rights organizations to identify quickly, assumptions that documentation about Patio 29 was correct, etc. This history of a seemingly isolated method shows how craniofacial superimposition and its computerization was used not only as a scientific identification technique, but also as a part of a reparation process.