DMN: San Marcos body farm does 'CSI'-style research

The Dallas Morning News featured an article in their September 14 edition about the two Texas body farms, both in the Texas State University – one in San Marcos and the other northeast of Huntsville.
This five-acre Hill Country farm isn't for harvesting crops, and it's not for raising animals. It's for bodies – dead bodies – and the Texas State University criminal justice students who use them to help solve cold cases.

These 'CSI'-style cemeteries, where scientists study donated human corpses as they decompose, have been untenable in all but a few states – the result of uneasy neighbors and an obvious "ick" factor.

For now, Texas has beaten these odds. Within a year, the state will be home to two of the country's four "body farms," including TSU's, the largest human decomposition program in the world.

Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, which is in the same university system as Texas State, got approval this year for its own body farm – the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility. But some students and faculty have raised concerns about the farm's location – on a former Texas Parks and Wildlife fish hatchery they say was supposed to be reserved for "natural" sciences. "Natural," in this case, is in the eye of the beholder.

"We need to do this for people who don't have a voice," said Dr. Joan Bytheway, who conceived of Sam Houston's body farm in 2005 while excavating mass graves in Iraq to convict Saddam Hussein of genocide. "So many cold cases are never solved. We can use this to determine what happens to bodies postmortem, until they're recovered."

Sam Houston State broke ground on its body farm last month – a 1-acre, maximum-security plot on the site of a former fish hatchery. The facility got the university system's go-ahead this spring following a faculty vote, and will have a morgue-type structure on the property by the end of the year. Dr. Bytheway said the first cadavers will be out there "as soon as we can start getting them.

Dr. Bytheway said she's seen the reaction body farms have had elsewhere in the country, and has taken every necessary precaution. The Sam Houston facility is on a dead-end road where the nearest home is more than a mile away. A containment pond will catch any potential runoff. And she had geologists take soil samples to ensure bodily fluids wouldn't be able to leach into the ground.

But they've also used another technique: "We've been really low-key about it," Dr. Bytheway said.

Indeed, few in Huntsville seem to know a body farm is in the works. Reached by phone, the Huntsville mayor, the city manager and the county judge said they supported Sam Houston's forensics research – but that they'd heard nothing about the plans.


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