The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

The Legacy of Dr. Karen Ramey Burns: A Focus on the Individual


1Anthropology, University of Michigan - Dearborn, 2Anthropology, University of Washington

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Karen Ramey Burns leaves behind a remarkable legacy as a forensic anthropologist and bioarchaeologist. Internationally, she participated in successful prosecutions against military dictatorships and helped establish international forensic teams, empowering individuals to investigate crimes within their own countries. As a professor, she instilled a strong ethical approach and trained students equally competent in osteology as in legal testimony. Burns demonstrated an ability to look outside the box, while maintaining an emphasis on what was truly important, identification of the remains of each unknown individual. Two examples of this emphasis on the individual include the investigation of the Raboteau Massacre in Haiti and the historical investigation of Casimir Pulaski, the Polish-born American Revolutionary War hero. In the case of the Raboteau Massacre that took place during the military dictatorship in 1994, resources were limited for the presentation of evidence in court. This did not deter Burns, she not only brought in the skeleton to the courtroom, she brought in the door from the individual’s home, using the rusted key found in the pocket of the victim to unlock the door. This was the first use of physical evidence in a Haitian court and led to the successful prosecution of many perpetrators of human rights abuses, including military leaders. In the historical case of Casimir Pulaski, Burns revealed something that even his contemporaries had not known; Pulaski had in fact been born a female. With a careful analysis of the skeleton and further investigation into historical records, Pulaski’s true identity was revealed.

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