It was not until late 2000 that military leaders were tried for their roles in the Raboteau Massacre. The entire six-week trial was covered by Radio Haiti, the first independent radio station in the country, and includes the testimony of forensic anthropologist Karen Ramey Burns, a specialist in using skeletal remains as evidence of human rights abuses. The full archives of Radio Haiti were given to Duke Universityin April of 2014, and since that time, researchers and staff at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library have been digitizing the nearly 3,500 recordings from ¼-inch magnetic reels and cassettes, which date between 1957 and 2003. The beginning of the end for Radio Haiti came early in 2000, when the station’s outspoken director, Jean Dominique, was assassinated; the case has never been solved.
Anthropologist Laura Wagner, the project archivist, has spent years living in and studying the culture of Haiti. She explains that “ the Raboteau trial recordings are, as far as we know, a unique set of in-depth documents of one formal attempt to seek justice for victims of political violence .” They represent the kind of coverage Radio Haiti was known for, and the station itself was “a space in which the Haitian poor, long denied freedom of expression, long excluded from national discourse, long regarded as passive and apolitical, could express their experiences of injustice and oppression in their own national language.” Radio Haiti was the voice of democracy and human rights, particularly in a political era that had neither.
The October 18, 2000 testimony of forensic anthropologist Karen Ramey Burns on the Raboteau Massacre can be heard at the Radio Haiti Archives on Soundcloud (starting around 16 minutes into part one and part two). Affiliated with the University of Georgia at the time, Burns gives testimony in English to the court with the assistance of a Haitian Creole translator. This recording gives a fascinating glimpse into how forensic anthropologists present evidence in a court of law. Burns had previously worked on genocide cases in Guatemala, Iraq, Kurdistan, Colombia, Sudan, and Tunisia before joining the Interamerican Team TISI +% of the Truth Commission convened to investigate deaths that occurred during the military regime in Haiti, and her testimony is clear and measured — an excellent example of how forensic professionals interact with the international judicial system.
After being asked stating her name, address, professional background, and religion, Burns is invited to discuss her involvement in the forensic-archaeological exhumation and examination of the skeletal remains. She starts by asking rhetorically, “What can a person tell just by looking at a group of bones?” and answering with basic explanations of assessing sex, age-at-death, stature, and traumatic injuries.
In the audio recording, Burns presents to the jury a pelvic bone with a bullet wound. She testifies about one of the individuals, “This is a—the entrance wound of a bullet. It’s a very high-powered, large-caliber bullet. This entered from behind and exited into the abdominal cavity. Something this high-powered would have also exited the body, essentially blowing out the abdomen. The person would not die immediately; they would die slowly, in pain, from loss of blood.”
Although Burns does not present the results of DNA testing, which were done by another specialist to help confirm identity of the individuals murdered at Raboteau, she answers a series of questions about her testimony, clarifying her methods and the conclusions that she can reach from bone evidence. Through questioning, it becomes clear that positive identification of the deceased could be made through skeletal evidence, DNA tests, and artifacts found with the bodies.
This was the trial of the century in Haiti – a landmark case in which high-ranking perpetrators of political violence during the military regime were held accountable for human rights violations. Thanks in part to the testimony of Karen Ramey Burns, a total of 53 people were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison at the end of the trial.
By 2005, however, most of the people who had been imprisoned had escaped, and the Haitian Supreme Court overturned the ruling. Unsurprisingly, Amnesty International condemned the high court’s decision that “the Criminal Tribunal of Gonaïves, having been established with the assistance of a jury, was not competent to rule the case,” calling the reversal “politically motivated.” But in spite of the court’s reversal and the sad history of Radio Haiti, its archives remain for us to learn from. For Wagner, who is helping preserve the physical recordings and transcribe and translate the audio, the archive represents the remains of “an active, living struggle. I think of how far these clean cardboard storage boxes and quiet, temperature-controlled spaces are from the sting of tear gas, the stickiness of blood, the smell of burning tires, the crack of gunfire, the heat and noise, the laughter and fury of Haiti.” Just as the bones of the Raboteau victims spoke to Burns, the archive of Radio Haiti is for Wagner “one place where the dead speak.”
Burns’ testimony demonstrates one of the more mundane sides of forensic anthropology: court testimony. This aspect is rarely dramatized in television shows like FOX’s Bones, as the show’s protagonist, Dr. Temperance Brennan, is too busy analyzing bones and chasing criminals. Yet Burns’ statement – and her life’s work – was imperative for bringing murderers to justice and for bringing closure to victims’ families . Similarly, “salvaging and preserving” the Radio Haiti archive of the trial is “part of the struggle,” Wagner says. “Remembering is, itself, a political act.”
Karen Ramey Burns died in early 2012, but she will be remembered from her work in Haiti and elsewhere as a scientist who used her knowledge of bones to advocate for international human rights.
Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “Forensic Anthropology Testimony In Haiti's Raboteau Massacre Digitized At Duke University”. Forbes. Posted: September 16, 2015. Available online: http://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/09/16/forensic-anthropology-testimony-in-haitis-raboteau-massacre-digitized-at-duke-university/