Wiliam Haglund Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Voices from the Graves: Conversation with William Haglund; Director, International Forensic Program of Physicians for Human Rights; 9/22/00 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 2 of 8

Learning Forensic Investigation

How did you get into forensic anthropology?

Well, that's my wife's fault. How I got into death investigation: We were in Southern California and she wanted to go to school. She went to school at the University of Washington. The first job application that came along, serendipitously, was with the medical examiner's office [in Seattle].

For you, while she was in school.

Yes. And, medical examiner's office: I thought, "Well, biology degree; I know about death and working with people; and if I can deal with the patrons of a bar while I'm playing music, I ought to be able to do death investigation."

So you become an investigator for the coroner's office?

Medical examiner's office. It's a medical - legal death investigation system, same thing.

Okay. So we move right into a mystery novel. Tell us a little bit about that kind of work.

Well, I was there nearly two years as an investigator. We investigated scenes of death, collected evidence, and did the notification of the next of kin of the death, and came back and wrote a report. And then, of course, the autopsy was done and the cause of death was [recorded], and we would go on to the next case.

So if one is a buff of NYPD, you were part of that team that follows the detectives to the murder scene.

Well, Quincy is probably more appropriate.

Quincy, okay.

He was everything.

Right. So you moved from just dressing the dead, and being very appreciative of that passage from life to death, and into the realm or the environment of dead bodies telling you a story.

And more into the realm of the unexpected, the exceptional or the unexpected deaths, rather than the natural routine transition.

So in this case you're not just looking at the body, you're looking at the physical setting to find clues, because the body really can't tell us how it entered this state, I guess.

Well, you look at the scene, the context. The body has an awful lot of information. We interviewed people. But you must know that homicides are a very small percentage of what a medical examiner's office does. About 50 percent of the deaths are natural, and maybe 12, 15 percent are suicides, 30 percent are accidents, and then there's a small portion that are homicides.

The rules that you're working under are laws that require a definition or an explanation of why this person died.

Exactly. These are deaths where there's been no medical attendance, or the death is of a suspicious nature, and it must be determined.

I assume you gathered evidence, then testified? Or was [testifying] really the job of your boss?

That was really the job of the boss, the way the office was constructed; otherwise you could spend all the time tearing your staff apart, appearing in court.

Next page: The Green River Murders

© Copyright 2000, Regents of the University of California