Garvin Reveals the Stories Written in Our Bones

A professor of anatomy at DMU and one of fewer than 120 board-certified forensic anthropologists in the nation, she frequently helps the state medical examiner, law enforcement and other requesting agencies with the search, recovery, identification and analysis of human remains. In suspected murder cases, she has been asked to provide analyses or expert testimonies. 

Garvin teaches anatomy to the next generation of health science professionals, but her other role often exposes her to humanity’s darker side. 

She and her students helped search an area in Mitchell County, Iowa, where a human skull was found mounted on a stick. It belonged to a woman whom a man murdered in 2021. Investigators found in the suspect’s home a blood-spattered drawing of a goat’s head in a pentagram — a Satanic image — with coordinates marking the location of the dead woman’s remains. 

Garvin helped piece together hundreds of human bone parts found among the ashes in a burn barrel and the home of an Elma, Iowa, man who’d murdered his friend. She found and matched the frontal sinus — an individually unique body part referred to as the fingerprint of the skull — to that in a CT scan the victim had had a few years earlier. She also noted that an arm bone and leg bone had “chop marks” from an edged instrument, signs of dismemberment. 

In a high-profile murder of 10-year-old Breasia Terrell, whose remains were found in a wooded area near DeWitt, Iowa, Garvin helped at the scene, finding two bullets in the soil that matched the skeletal trauma. She later testified in the murder and kidnapping trial of registered sex offender Henry Dinkins, the father of Terrell’s half-brother. 

The gruesome nature of such cases and the work involved in producing forensic reports about them do not dissuade Garvin from putting her expertise to such difficult work, however. 

“It makes you realize the importance of what you do. Whatever information I present may have major consequences,” she says. “It’s not only the decedent’s life that’s in your hands. It’s also their loved ones and whoever is on trial.” 

That’s why she spends hours analyzing remains, images and the literature for her reports. 

“I go down rabbit holes. My reports have whatever supporting evidence I have, images of bones, where the defects lie and citations,” she says. “My job is to teach the jury. I want them to be able to see how I came to my conclusions, not just take my word on it.” 

As a zoology major at the University of Florida, Garvin took pre-medicine classes and an introductory biological anthropology course. She added anthropology as a second degree. Her mother got her hooked on crime writer Patricia Cornwell’s novels that feature medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. “I think that led me to volunteering at UF’s forensic anthropology laboratory, where I saw how the bones could speak for those who couldn’t,” she says. 

Garvin notes she is “very good at compartmentalizing” her emotions, including in grim criminal cases. She enjoys the science and the critical thinking each forensic case requires. To her, the best part about forensic anthropology is the closure it can bring to loved ones in those cases. 

“I love being able to provide a unique service to families that have lost a loved one — to help them understand what happened. For every set of skeletal remains that sits unidentified, there’s a family with a missing loved one who has no answers,” she says. “They deserve to know as much information as they can about their loved one’s death.” 

On Sept. 3, 2021, Garvin was contacted by an attorney requesting that she conduct a forensic anthropological review of case materials associated with the court case Ohio v. Matheau Moore. Moore had been accused of murdering his wife, Emily Noble, whose body was found with a USB cord around her neck in a wooded area near their home. Among the materials was a review by William Smock, M.D., M.S., police surgeon for the Louisville, Kentucky, Metro Police Department and the prosecution’s star witness in the case. 

Described by the press as a “well-known strangulation expert,” Smock, who is not a board-certified forensic anthropologist or forensic pathologist, included in his report and testified during the August 2022 trial that Noble had been choked to death, then staged to appear she’d committed suicide. Garvin testified against Smock, admitting the challenge of overcoming implicit biases. “I knew that I needed to convince a jury of everyday people who may not have medical or science backgrounds that this overly confident older male physician with an 83-page CV was wrong.” 

At the heart of the prosecution’s case against Moore was Smock’s analysis that bone fractures in Noble’s face and neck proved beyond a doubt the woman had been strangled. Garvin refuted his conclusion, however. 

“In his report and testimony he provided misleading statements without any citations or supporting evidence and declared she had to have been manually strangled,” Garvin says. “But based on the fracture pattern, you cannot rule out the possibility of hanging, as I showed in my report.” 

In less than three hours, the jury returned a not guilty verdict for Moore. The trial was streamed live on the Law & Crime Network on YouTube. Then last March, “Dateline NBC” asked if she would appear in an episode about the case. Garvin agreed because the producers planned to use footage of her from the trial regardless, and she wanted the science and the facts to be presented accurately. Program staff came to campus and spent almost seven hours interviewing her. 

“That seven hours turned into like five minutes on the two-hour episode, but it was an interesting experience,” she says. 

The Ohio case was Garvin’s sixth time testifying in a courtroom and the most hostile. She was on the stand for four hours straight, including responding to challenges by the prosecution. “Forensic anthropologists deal with what happened to skeletal remains, not about who committed a crime. We’re not usually a contentious witness,” she says. 

Garvin, who is the current vice president of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, says appearing on “Dateline NBC” was another opportunity to highlight the field and the expertise of board-certified forensic anthropologists. 

“A problem in our field is that people aren’t aware of forensic anthropology. We’re trying to get our expertise out there more publicly and encourage people to use board-certified forensic anthropologists who have illustrated a level of competency through a board exam and are held to ethical standards,” she says. “This case reminds me of that. If the defense hadn’t reached out, Smock’s conclusions may have gone unchallenged. 

“Through my role at DMU, I am able to serve the community, keeping people safe and getting closure to families,” she adds. “I’m not a clinician in the strict sense, but the forensic pathologists I work with are physicians, and they will tell you that they work for the living equally as much as the deceased.” 

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