Justice in the Bones,
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.
up to the third floor of the University
Museums Kress wing, out of the view of the visiting public, and
youll find the physical anthropology teaching laban 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 childs
bonesslender ribs and tiny vertebraeresembles 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 isnt 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 widows peak
helped secure a defendants freedom.
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.
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.
"Im more likely to go out on a limb because I have a feeling
[about something]," Monge says. Mann, the more skeptical one, acknowledges
that Monges insights usually prevail. "I give good testimony,"
in the great sweep of human history, Manns scholarly association
with Monge isnt so long-lived. But in the context of, say, Penns
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 cant believe
that Ive already reached the point where former students of mine
have children who are in my courses. Thats truly scary."
who teaches both at Penn and Bryn Mawr, began pursuing her Ph.D. at Penn
in 1976; Mann was her adviser. "I finished in 1990a 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
couldnt take it anymore."
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.
of advice to purse snatchers: dont 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 robbers nose as well as the
rest of his physiognomy, easily picking him out from mug shots and in
folks dont record faces so systematically, whether theyve
just left the scene of a crime or a party. "Many people dont
look specifically at features," explains Mann. "When you go
past an individual, you take in the whole gestalt. Thats why people
sometimes have difficulty when they see somebody on the street. It looks
like your buddy, but when you get close, theres something wrong.
And its only later that you realize, well, this person had a thin
chin, or their cheeks were broader.
Janet and I study the individual differences, because thats 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
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. Its 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. Thats 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.
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 Wilburns
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 forand foundwere immutable physical variations, features
that dont simply change with the fashions, the seasons or from one
haircut to the next.
for one, has a more "vertical" forehead; that of the young man
on tape is more sloping. Both the nasal bridgethats the place
between the eyes, where glasses sitand the chin project more on
the face of the suspect than is the case with Wilburn. The suspects
skull from front to back, "as in hat size," is distinctively
long; Wilburns is not. Wilburns facial profile, from eye sockets
to chin, is more extended.
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 attorneys office, inviting
them to see Mann and Monges slide show.
the DAs office wouldnt 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 wasnt just whether he was guilty or not
guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He was 100 percent innocent."
had already gone back and put the neighbor who was a witness through a
lineup. (She didnt pick Wilburn.) They then turned their attention
to the victims underwear, which had lain, neglected, in an evidence
drawer for several months. (Due to a lab technicians oversight,
the garment had never before been tested for DNA. At the request of the
DAs office, the crime lab supervisor rechecked the panties and discovered
a small semen stain.) Four days before his scheduled trial, with his mothers
permission, Wilburn had a blood sample drawn. It didnt match the
DNA from the victims underwear, and the assistant D.A. immediately
dropped the charges.
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."
Wilburn, who is in therapy arranged by Gilman, is still tryinga
year laterto deal with the emotional scars left by his time in prison.
"Sometimes when I look at him, I know hes 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.
outcome of Wilburns case generated intense local and national media
coverage, as well as a storm of letter-writing by reform-minded citizens.
Gilman doesnt 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 didnt matter at all."
Wilburns 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 dont need to be in that job