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

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The Green River Murders

What was the most interesting case that you had?

What really changed the direction of my focus was the Green River serial murder case.

Tell us exactly what that was.

It involved the death of what was alleged to be about fifty young women who were killed between July of 1982 and March of 1984 around the Seattle area. Up through 1990, we were still discovering remains. These were young women, and they were left out in the forest and scavenged, and they were skeletons. And I became very enamored with bones and I thought it was time for me to go back to school and get a degree, so I did that rather late in life, actually.

So before we talk about your getting reeducated, in the serial killings, you were participating in a process to get a profile of the person who did this, in order that he might be captured.

It's mostly that you're looking in the context of a police investigation. Our job at the medical examiner's office was to respond to the scene, but because these were skeletal scenes, also we brought along our special expertise on knowledge of bones, and what they were, and how to search scenes for them, how to collect that kind of evidence. It's more like an archeological paradigm that you're working from. So we're very integrated in that, and then, of course, the identification process. Oftentimes you never knew who they were, and you had to mandate who they could be. The identification was the most intriguing and challenging part.

What sort of things went into an investigation? Dental records where they were found? What else?

More fundamental than that, this was prior to computer systems of missing people. So we had to find out who was missing from the area, that was a big part, and then go back and find out if there were any extant dental records or hospital records. Mostly dental records. Sometimes I would race back from the scene with the cranium and have it identified before the police were done at the scene. I worked with forensic odentologists and they were just very good. Once we had the records we could do it.

Was this case ever resolved?

Well, we talk about resolutions ... for families that got the identified remains, that part of closure was done for them. The case has never been solved.

So in addition to doing this very complicated work, you have, even when you're doing murder cases in the United States, you really have a very different constituency, groups you have to respond to in your work. You just mentioned family.

The family's one, and you always have to be conscious of the public, of the media, of the perception you're giving, working with investigators, with prosecutors. The law, too; you have to be very much concerned that the way you proceed is legal, so that the case won't be [overturned].

Oh, absolutely.

But most of the time, the leaders in the homicide investigation are the police. The burden of the investigation is theirs. Other forms of death, the burden is on the medical examiner's office.

What is the book or movie that has most captured, do you think, the sense of this kind of work?

Well, I think Patricia Cornwell did well on her early books, Posmortum was one of them I thought was very good. But forensic anthropology; Aaron Elkins has written a series on the forensic anthropologist protagonist. But there's a host of murder mysteries, and they're doing better in the technical part. I tend to be put off by the ones that aren't accurate. It bothers me, the veracity is suspect to me.

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