Allegations against Mercyhurst forensic anthropologist groundless

Allegations that Steven Symes, Ph.D., a forensic anthropologist on the faculty of Mercyhurst College, had taken bones without permission from his former employer, the Shelby County, Tenn., Regional Forensic Center, have proved groundless.

According to a news release from the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department, the investigation into whether or not Symes removed evidence in the form of bone specimens without permission has been closed.

“In March 2004 it was determined that Dr. Steve Symes, a former forensic anthropologist with the center, had a number of bones with him in Erie, Pa., for teaching purposes per an agreement that had been made earlier with the Regional Forensic Center’s previous medical examiner,” reads the release issued July 1.

The release explains that the investigation into Symes began when an inventory at the center revealed hundreds of missing specimens. Since that time, several people involved with the center have returned bones and other evidence for cataloging, and the policies at the center have been updated.

“It has been an ordeal unlike any I have ever endured in my life,” Symes said. “This was tremendously difficult – both personally and professionally – but I have always been confident that once the facts were examined by the proper authorities, the conclusion would be irrefutable. I did nothing wrong and I was more than willing to cooperate with the investigation in order to illustrate that fact.” 

The accusation against Symes was made by former Shelby County Medical ExaminerO.C. Smith who, himself, is under federal indictment for falsely reporting that someone attacked him outside the forensic center on June 1, 2002. Smith was found wrapped in barbed wire, a homemade bomb strapped to his neck and bound to window bars in his office. Smith, who has pleaded not guilty, is awaiting trial. 

Meanwhile, Smith alleged that Symes took 375 skeletal bones from the forensic center when he left last year to take a position at Mercyhurst. All along, Symes maintained that the bones were, and had been for a considerable time, part of his teaching collection. 

Symes uses the bones in his collection not only to teach his anthropology and forensic science students at Mercyhurst, but also as he travels throughout the world, providing training to law enforcement, medical examiners, educators, graduate students, and others in the field of forensic science. 

Symes brings to Mercyhurst the experience of an extremely distinguished career in which he has published extensively, lectured worldwide and served as a consultant to pathologists, attorneys, and investigators. His unique expertise in sharp force trauma, specifically mutilation and dismemberment, has taken him across the United States and Canada as an expert witness for both the prosecution and the defense. He is one of fewer than 70 American scientists certified as a Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and is also credited with lending his expertise to human rights causes. 

Tennessee State Medical Examiner Dr. Bruce Levy said, in reference to the investigation: “It is our position that it is appropriate for forensic scientists such as Dr. Symes to continue to have access to these specimens for teaching and research purposes. He is a forensic anthropologist … and has provided many years of service to the people of Shelby County, and to the advancement of forensic science in general."

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