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Iraq posed unique challenges for forensic digital imaging

While working for the U.S. Justice Department in Baghdad as a forensic imaging systems manager, I designed and managed a complete forensic imaging system to visually document the exhumations and analysis of mass graves throughout Iraq. Using the experience that I gained as a forensic photographer and digital imaging specialist with the Baltimore County Police Department and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, I was able to develop standard operating procedures (SOPs), organize equipment, tailor software, and train individuals on the procedures to establish and maintain a secure imaging system. This would have been a lot easier if we had not been in a war zone…or in a country where nails recycled, 230 volt power needed converting (and remained unstable), and gunfire, rockets and mortars continually entered our camp.

copy standI was responsible for ensuring that the images needed were captured professionally, followed strict guidelines, and would stand up in World Court for charges against Saddam Hussein. It became apparent that we would have to create make-shift components to achieve the type of images needed. What follows are three examples of how the team came together to design and implement “MacGyver-style” support systems to accomplish these tasks.

Drop-out shadows copy stand
To completely eliminate shadows on items of evidence that needed detailed image capture, a copy stand was designed with plywood and clear plexiglas. A 4’x8’ sheet of plywood was screwed on top of a 4’x4’ table with a 4-foot overhang. A 3’x 2’ section was cut out of the overhang and oversized clear plexiglas placed over the cutout. The floor directly below the cutout was painted white and lit with two 300-watt flood lights. A copy stand column was mounted on the plywood so that the camera pointed down to the center of the cutout. A single flood light was used as the main light source while a white card worked as a reflector on the other side.

skullskull 2
Just keeping the plexiglas clean was major problem. Sand storms and skeletal dust would leave small particles on the surface of the plexiglas, which were removed using a squeeze ball dust remover before each shot. Exposures varied depending on the size of the object and its ability to reflect or absorb light. The combination of a single light and a reflector lit the object while other lights—projected at a white painted floor—provided the drop-out shadow effect. Most of the objects were skeletal elements, including full and partial skulls. To position these objects, standard artist clay was used as support and hidden from the camera’s point of view. Utilizing a “third hand” articulating clamp device, a scale was placed in position for each image. Trajectory rods were held in position by the same type of clamp outside the area of coverage. Some entrance and exit wounds required the use of a fiber optics light source to direct a beam of light onto a specific area of interest. The resulting images were perfectly lit to show depth, texture, and detail without any shadows.

skeletonFull skeletal layout shots
As part of the analysis of the exhumed skeletal remains, a complete reconstruction of all the individual elements was precisely positioned on the surface of a gurney covered with a white sheet. It was necessary to capture images overhead and directly perpendicular to the gurney’s surface. The established procedures called for the anthropologists to capture the image of these skeletal layouts on their own.  To accomplish this task, a digital camera was mounted to the highest center point of the anthropology analysis tent. A Canon PowerShot was used because it provided a real-time viewing display that could be visualized on a laptop connected to it. A USB cable provided the feed to the laptop positioned on a table out of the camera’s angle of view. Registration marks were placed on the floor for the gurney to be positioned directly underneath the camera. The analyst was able to view the laptop in real time, ensuring accurate positioning of the gurney. Two flood lights were mounted onto 3-foot-high upright boards (on both sides of the image capture area) and wired to a switch next to the laptop. tentBecause the tent’s interior was white, the lights were pointed upward and bounced off of the ceiling, creating soft, even lighting on the gurney. With a click of the mouse, the analysts captured the image and it was sent via an Ethernet cable directly to the digital imaging lab for database entry.

This method allowed the anthropologists to capture images quickly and continue with their analysis of the remains, while the forensic photographer continued working in the digital imaging lab on detail image requests. This method also increased workflow, while maintaining SOPs and image quality. The resulting images were uniform even though a variety of individuals were responsible for capturing them.

mannequin1Mannequins for clothing
Most of the victims of the mass graves were subject to multiple gunshot wounds caused by automatic weapons. The clothing recovered with the remains was sent to a separate tent for analysis by cultural items experts. Items were cleaned, cataloged, and photographed. But the cultural analyst team needed to demonstrate how the clothing would appear when worn, rather than laying them out on a table or floor. To do this they designed full-sized mannequins. Construction was limited to the available materials: plywood, cloth, and rope. Three body sizes were constructed: an adult, adolescent, and infant; each with adjustable arm, leg, and torso lengths.

An area within the cultural analysis tent was designated as the mannequin studio, and a white, painted backdrop was constructed. The free-standing mannequins were fitted with articles of clothing and positioned at a designated mark. A digital SLR mounted on a tripod was positioned at a designated distance from the mannequin, depending on their size. Utilizing bounce flash directed off the tent’s white ceiling, a soft shadow was cast on the floor behind the mannequin, evenly lighting the clothing. mannequin2Analysts placed markers on the clothing to indicate possible entrance and/or exit wounds. Head wear, foot wear, blindfolds, and hand restraints (recovered with the articles of clothing) were fitted to the mannequins as well. The resulting images dramatically demonstrated the trauma to the individuals, while providing a more natural appearance of how that individual would have looked.

Throughout my nearly three years in Iraq working on this project, numerous challenges arose—from something as simple as  keeping the equipment clean to customizing database software with tech support 6,000 miles away over a satellite Internet connection affected by sandstorms. Add to that the ever-memorable electrocution and fried hard drive due to unstable power sources…I could go on and on.

The three examples of image capture techniques are only a few of the many creative ideas that were incorporated into a truly unique forensic image management system. The level of professionalism and attention to detail in capturing, processing, and managing these images was reinforced when the images were presented unchallenged at the International Tribunal for genocide and crimes against humanity in the trial of Saddam Hussein and his former commanders.  The value of these images can only be appreciated through the tears in the courtroom.

David Knoerlein
Forensic Digital Imaging, Inc. (fdiflorida.com)

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