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Justice in the Bones, continued

 

Photo by Candace diCarlo
Putting their skulls together: Dr. Janet Monge Gr'80 and Dr. Alan Mann, Penn anthropologists (shown in rear), gather with public defender Glenn Gilman C'69 in one of the anthropology department's teaching labs.

Go up to the third floor of the University Museum’s Kress wing, out of the view of the visiting public, and you’ll find the physical anthropology teaching lab—an exhibit unto itself. Busts of early man seem to keep sentient watch over the room, while on the cabinet shelves below are rows of human skulls, lined up like so many beer steins in a busy bar. A complete set of child’s bones—slender ribs and tiny vertebrae—resembles jewelry in its meticulous display behind a glass case. Two plastic lunch trays hold an array of fossil fragments arranged for a daunting identification quiz. In the midst of these visual distractions, Mann and Monge present a slide show of their findings demonstrating that Wilburn was not the individual caught on film in the convenience store that July day two years ago.
   
As scholars who spend most of their time poking around in our distant past, their legal work is not a side-specialty they like to advertise. All the same, they consider it a part of their civic duty. Mann says he isn’t aware of any other anthropologists who have served as expert witnesses in criminal cases. He and Monge have accepted about a dozen cases over the past 16 years, "losing" in only one of them. In one case, the essential distinguishing mark was a pair of attached earlobes; in others, a duck-like gait or a widow’s peak helped secure a defendant’s freedom.
   
They have established a couple of ground rules, however, that result in them turning down many pressure-filled pitches. They work only for the defense, and only when they believe the defendant is innocent.
   
Because Mann and Monge must convince themselves of this fact before they can convince others, they typically argue a lot in the early phases of an investigation. "I’m more likely to go out on a limb because I have a feeling [about something]," Monge says. Mann, the more skeptical one, acknowledges that Monge’s insights usually prevail. "I give good testimony," he says.
   
Perhaps in the great sweep of human history, Mann’s scholarly association with Monge isn’t so long-lived. But in the context of, say, Penn’s anthropology department, they go way back. Mann has been teaching at Penn since he completed his Ph.D. at UC-Berkeley in 1968. "That entitles me to be fossilized here," he boasts. "I can’t believe that I’ve already reached the point where former students of mine have children who are in my courses. That’s truly scary."
   
Monge, who teaches both at Penn and Bryn Mawr, began pursuing her Ph.D. at Penn in 1976; Mann was her adviser. "I finished in 1990—a mere 13 years later," she says, letting out one of her infectious laughs. Mann shakes his head. "We just gave up and gave her the degree. We couldn’t take it anymore."
   
A good portion of the time, Mann and Monge are consumed with Neanderthals, a group they believe have been unfairly maligned by everyone from respected scientists to insult-slinging lawmakers. "I think 40,000 years ago," surmises Mann, "if they got angry at somebody, they said, ‘Oh you congressperson!’" Recently, they studied x-rays of an enormous collection of Neanderthal fossils from Croatia, and concluded from the bone density levels that these early hominids were actually a hardier bunch than had been previously believed.
   
Word of advice to purse snatchers: don’t pick an anthropologist to rob. Janet Monge recalls the time she was mugged 10 years ago, outside a grocery story at 10th and South streets. She was wearing a sturdy Coach pocketbook with straps that refused to break; the robber, determined not to run away empty-handed, tussled with her, threw her to her knees and spun her around on the sidewalk. But Monge had gotten a look at the guy when she passed by him before the assault. "The police came up to me and asked, ‘Can you describe the person that mugged you?’ I said, ‘No problem! I know exactly what he looks like.’" She proceeded to give a precise account of the shape of the robber’s nose as well as the rest of his physiognomy, easily picking him out from mug shots and in a lineup.
   
Ordinary folks don’t record faces so systematically, whether they’ve just left the scene of a crime or a party. "Many people don’t look specifically at features," explains Mann. "When you go past an individual, you take in the whole gestalt. That’s why people sometimes have difficulty when they see somebody on the street. It looks like your buddy, but when you get close, there’s something wrong. And it’s only later that you realize, well, this person had a thin chin, or their cheeks were broader.
   
"But Janet and I study the individual differences, because that’s what our business is all about. So when Glen brought us the surveillance tape and we looked at these images, and then when Janet initially went to the prison and looked at Greg, it was very clear that this person was dissimilar from Greg."
   
If this were a Hollywood movie, Mann says, laser pointer aimed at the projection screen, "Somebody puts [an ordinary surveillance tape] into the computer and all sorts of magic happens. It’s a huge picture like this and they focus in, and not only can you see the ice cream ad [inside the store] clearly, but you can see the price. That’s science fiction." In reality, they had to work with a copy of an old tape that most likely had been erased and recorded over many times. While they could enhance the images somewhat, such manipulation would probably disqualify their testimony. Despite these limitations, Mann and Monge were able to identify some striking differences between the two individuals.
   
Forget the fact that the face in the tape appears to be unshaven and Wilburn was a smooth-cheeked 15-year-old at time of the crime. Or the fact that the suspect walked into the store with some kind of bookbag and Wilburn’s mom insists that she could hardly get him to carry one during the school year, let alone the middle of summer. What Mann and Monge were looking for—and found—were immutable physical variations, features that don’t simply change with the fashions, the seasons or from one haircut to the next.
   
Wilburn, for one, has a more "vertical" forehead; that of the young man on tape is more sloping. Both the nasal bridge—that’s the place between the eyes, where glasses sit—and the chin project more on the face of the suspect than is the case with Wilburn. The suspect’s skull from front to back, "as in hat size," is distinctively long; Wilburn’s is not. Wilburn’s facial profile, from eye sockets to chin, is more extended.
   
Even with the ample evidence provided by Mann and Monge, Gilman wanted to avoid having a trial. For one thing, he knew that emotional courtroom testimony from the young victim might resonate more with a jury than a fact-laden defense. But more important, he understood that the judge could decide not to permit the anthropologists’ testimony. So he took the unusual step of opening up his case to the district attorney’s office, inviting them to see Mann and Monge’s slide show.
   
Although the DA’s office wouldn’t concede that Wilburn was innocent, "The noise that I had made certainly raised questions in their mind," Gilman says. And by now, the case had become a crusade for him. "I strongly believed that it wasn’t just whether he was guilty or not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He was 100 percent innocent."
   
Investigators had already gone back and put the neighbor who was a witness through a lineup. (She didn’t pick Wilburn.) They then turned their attention to the victim’s underwear, which had lain, neglected, in an evidence drawer for several months. (Due to a lab technician’s oversight, the garment had never before been tested for DNA. At the request of the DA’s office, the crime lab supervisor rechecked the panties and discovered a small semen stain.) Four days before his scheduled trial, with his mother’s permission, Wilburn had a blood sample drawn. It didn’t match the DNA from the victim’s underwear, and the assistant D.A. immediately dropped the charges.
   
On October 5, 367 days after his freedom was taken away from him, Wilburn walked out of jail. "The first night he was back home," recalls his mother, Marion Jessie, "I just could not fall asleep. I was back and forth, up and down the steps, peeping at him, because it was like this nightmare was finally over. I felt like my household was complete."
   
But Wilburn, who is in therapy arranged by Gilman, is still trying—a year later—to deal with the emotional scars left by his time in prison. "Sometimes when I look at him, I know he’s not the same person," Jessie says. "Sometimes he just wanders off by himself." At the family reunion this summer, she remembers, he went home after only a couple of hours of socializing.
   
The outcome of Wilburn’s case generated intense local and national media coverage, as well as a storm of letter-writing by reform-minded citizens. Gilman doesn’t believe that race was a factor in the bungled police investigation (both Wilburn and the victim are African-American), but he does think that socioeconomics played a role. "If this was some kid from the suburbs or from a so-called ‘good family,’" he says, "I think they would have worked harder on this case. But to this investigator, it obviously didn’t matter at all."
   
For Wilburn’s mother, it boils down to the investigators not giving their all to their jobs. "When I go to work," says Jessie, a licensed practical nurse, "I know the lives of the people I take care of is in my hands. I think that when a person gets comfortable in their job and stops giving 100 percent, they don’t need to be in that job anymore."

 

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Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 10
/27/99