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Visiting author has unique story to tell

Posted on October 15, 2014 by Shaunavon Standard

Debra Komar, an internationally renowned forensic anthropologist, delivered a fascinating presentation to an appreciative crowd at the T.rex Discovery Centre in Eastend on Wednesday. 

Komar, who is the 2014 winner of the Wallace Stegner Grant for the Arts, has worked extensively in the field of forensic anthropology and forensic science.

Now retired after a globe-trotting 22-year career in the field, which saw her tackling some of the world’s most gruesome crimes against humanity, Komar has turned her attention to writing.

In a four-book series using cases pulled from the historic archives – crimes committed in the 1800s – Komar reveals how cutting-edge investigative methods are rewriting our nation’s legal history.

The crimes may be old, but the questions they raise continue to echo through our courtrooms to this day.

Her first book, The Ballad of Jacob Peck, was published last year.

In her most recent work, The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, Komar uses footprints and blood analysis to prove that Canada executed an innocent man in 1896.

Readers, however, are asked to form their own opinion about each case.

“The reader becomes the hypothetic 13th  juror,” she stated. “I’m giving them the evidence and letting them come to their own conclusion.”

Komar also sees her writing effort as an opportunity  to paint a more accurate depiction of what forensic science is all about.

Popular television programs, like the CSI franchise, leave an impression with viewers that forensic science can solve just about any case or question.

The phenomenon, known as the CSI Effect, has created unrealistic expectations in the courtroom. As a result, juries often expect a science based solution to every crime.

“Unfortunately, their only exposure to forensic science is the TV,” said Komar. “They honestly expect every crime has a high-tech solution. And if they don’t get it, they don’t convict.”

She says these television programs also had another profound effect on forensic science.

Komar, who also worked as a university professor, can remember a time when forensic classes would attract only a handful of college students.

But after the explosion of science-themed police dramas, students started tripping over themselves to sign up for these educational opportunities.

At the University of New Mexico for instance, where Komar once taught, school officials were forced to cap enrollments at 400 students.

“People were saying ‘this is cool – where do I get my gun and my DNA kit?,’” said Komar.

“Yet it is the least interesting aspect of what we do,” she shrugged.

Interestingly, Komar originally went to university to become a marine biologist.

It was a premed course, that ultimately helped guide her down a different career path.

“I  found that not only was I pretty good at autopsies, but that it didn’t bother me,” she stated.

Komar holds degrees in anatomy and cell biology (M.A. from Queens University in Kingston, Ont.), as well as a degree in anthropology (B.Sc. at the University of Toronto). She later earned her PhD at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

She was among the first significant wave of forensic anthropologists that worked on some of the world’s most notorious crimes.

During a career that spanned more than two decades, Komar investigated a wide range of atrocities.

She worked for a variety of  international human rights organizations, including the United Nations and  Physicians for Human Rights.

Her specialty was genocide and she worked at locations ranging from Bosnia to Rwanda. She helped uncover mass graves and identify victims.

She also worked at sites that included 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Komar has been called to testify in a number of court cases around the globe and appeared at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.

In fact, Komar appeared as an expert witness during Saddam Hussein’s trial.

Komar also worked as a professor at the University of New Mexico and was a deputy medical examiner and the state forensic anthropologist at the Office of the Medical Investigator for the State.

In 2003, Komar found herself in the middle of another high-profile situation when Bill Richardson, who was New Mexico’s governor at the time and a rising star on the U.S. political scene, reopened the 120-year-old case of Billy the Kid.

New Mexico is one of three states, along with Arizona and Texas, that claim to have the remains of the famous outlaw.

Richardson’s plan was to exhume the body from the grave site, test the corpse for DNA, and prove once and for all that the remains of Billy the Kid were held in New Mexico.

Richardson made a very public announcement about his intentions and Komar was given an unlimited budget to lead the investigation. She even had access to the governor’s plane.

Unfortunately, Richardson never consulted with Komar and other scientists before launching his plan.

When it became clear that Richardson wasn’t going to get the kind of outcome he hoped for – readers can draw their own conclusions to what the scientists discovered – the investigation was suddenly called off.

“It was an interesting experience,” smiled Komar. “But he (Richardson) should have asked the scientists first before moving ahead with his plans. It turned out to be a ridiculous political debacle.”

“And the amount of attention it received was crazy,” she added. “At one point there was even a Japanese camera crew following (investigators) around.”

One positive result of the whole experience was that it convinced Komar to start writing.

She was intrigued by the idea of using modern forensic science to help solve centuries old cases.

“I had been saying that I was going to write a book for the last 10 years,” laughed Komar, who had previously authored dozens of research papers articles and text books.  “Finally, I just shut up and did it.”

“Plus, I always had a secret little dream of walking into a book store and seeing a book of my own.”

Her first book, The Ballad of Jacob Peck, was published in 2013 by Goose Lane Editions of New Brunswick. The story examines whether the incendiary sermons of an itinerant preacher led to a brutal murder in 1805.

In many ways, the book is a sample of the dangerous influence some leaders – not unlike Adolf Hitler and Slobodan Miloševic – have over their communities.

“How do you make the link between the dead body and the person who gave the order,” said Komar. “It’s easy to get the guy who pulled the trigger, but a lot harder to get the guy who gave the order.”

The third installment in the series, The Bastard of Fort Stikine, will be published next year.

The  book uses ballistics and crime-scene reconstruction to solve a 173-year-old unsolved murder, will be released next year.

The final book in the series, Black River Road, scheduled for release in 2016, will revisit the case of a renowned architect convicted of multiple murders to answer a provocative question: is everyone capable of murder?

Komar also has plans to write another series of three books that chronicles parts of her career.

Another project is being developed through her month long stay at the Wallace Stegner House.

During her time in Eastend she is investigating a half dozen cases from Saskatchewan that could be used for a long article or a book.

The theme of those story ideas, Komar says, involves the specific question of reasonable doubt.

“What constitutes reasonable doubt?” wondered Komar.  “There’s a couple of murders in Saskatchewan from 1910 to 1930 where doubt is very much part of the case itself.”

Komar, who had originally retired to Nova Scotia but is now in the midst of moving to Prince Edward Island, has enjoyed her time at Eastend.

“I’ve been more productive in the first week that I’ve been here than the entire month before that,” she said. “This has been a great experience and the people of Eastend have been wonderful.”

After decades travelling the world doing the kind of gruelling work she had been doing – which included 18 hour days mucking around trenches while digging out mass graves – Komar is enjoying a much quieter lifestyle these days.

“I did it for 22 years and retired in my late 40s at a relatively young age,” she admitted.

“I always compared it to dog years – one year in the trenches digging up mass graves is like 10 years in real life,” she added. “Most people who do it only do it for a very short period of time. It takes a serious emotional toll on people.”

“But it’s work that needs to be done and it has to be done well.”

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