A skull, some bones, some clothing and the place they are found can reveal how a person died and even give leads on finding the killer if it was foul play, experts say.
"The body itself is a crime scene," said Joe Collier, a forensic consultant and retired director of the crime lab for the Phoenix police.
Remains of Chandra Levy, the 24-year old federal intern who disappeared a year ago, were found Wednesday in Washington's Rock Creek Park.
Police said they recovered a skull, other bones, a jogging bra, tennis shoes and other items, but have no idea how Levy died. The medical examiner, Dr. Jonathan Arden, declined to describe the condition of the remains or say how long it might take to determine when and how Levy died.
The skull and bones themselves might reveal how she died, experts said in interviews Wednesday. For example, if a person is stabbed and the blade hits a bone, it will leave a mark, Collier said. Certain kinds of skull fractures, or of course a bullet hole, can also reveal how a person died, he said.
A bullet nick on a bone could even give some idea of what kind of bullet was used, experts said. Clothing could reveal stab wounds that didn't leave a mark on bone.
Experts said careful examination of clothing and the ground where the body was found could also turn up fibers that indicate, for example, that the victim had been transported in the trunk of a car or had been in contact with a particular kind of rug or clothing of an assailant. Similarly, human hairs that don't belong to the victim may yield DNA that can be compared against a suspect's, experts said.
Saliva or semen could turn up on clothing, and that could yield useful DNA, said Rod Englert, a forensic consultant in Portland, Ore. If a killer tightly twists a cloth or rope around the victim's neck, he could even unwittingly strip off skin cells from his hands, leaving them — and their DNA — on the murder weapon, Englert said.
In searching the area around the body, "you sift through the dirt, you sift through the leaves," Englert said. Besides fibers and hairs, such a search could turn up a button that matches a shirt from a suspect, he said.
The investigation should also include nearby bird and rodent nests, he said, because those animals may squirrel away jewelry, bits of clothing or other items that will pay off in the case.
"When you're looking at a crime scene like this, what you try to train yourself to do is look for something that shouldn't be there," said Raymond Grimsbo, director of a private crime lab in Portland, Ore.