Comparing the Scoring of Human Decomposition from Digital Images to Scoring Using On-site Observations

J Forensic Sci. 2017 Sep;62(5):1292-1296. doi: 10.1111/1556-4029.13409. Epub 2017 Jan 25.


When in forensic casework or empirical research in-person assessment of human decomposition is not possible, the sensible substitution is color photographic images. To date, no research has confirmed the utility of color photographic images as a proxy for in situ observation of the level of decomposition. Sixteen observers scored photographs of 13 human cadavers in varying decomposition stages (PMI 2-186 days) using the Total Body Score system (total n = 929 observations). The on-site TBS was compared with recorded observations from digital color images using a paired samples t-test. The average difference between on-site and photographic observations was -0.20 (t = -1.679, df = 928, p = 0.094). Individually, only two observers, both students with <1 year of experience, demonstrated TBS statistically significantly different than the on-site value, suggesting that with experience, observations of human decomposition based on digital images can be substituted for assessments based on observation of the corpse in situ, when necessary.

Keywords: data verification; forensic anthropology; forensic science; photographs; taphonomy; visual assessment.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Body Remains
  • Cadaver
  • Forensic Anthropology
  • Forensic Pathology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted*
  • Observer Variation
  • Photography*
  • Postmortem Changes*
  • Professional Competence