Speaker for the Dead

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I'm a PhD candidate. In general, my interests span across archaeology and physical anthropology
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ST. PAUL, February 1st, 2013 — Dr. Steven Symes gingerly pinched the lumbar bones of the 33-inch-long model human skeleton with one hand and pointed to its rib cage with the other.

Standing in front of jurors at John Oldson’s first-degree murder trial Friday, he showed where Cathy Beard had sustained crushing injuries to her ribs.

Then he pointed out where a massive blow struck her face.

And where he said he found evidence of two stab wounds to her back on bones around the spinal column.

Jurors got a lesson in forensic anthropology from Symes, an associate professor at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., who got his start in the early 1980s at the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility.

The groundbreaking facility uses donated human bodies to study how they decompose and is better known as the Body Farm.

But, Symes said, “we weren’t allowed to call it that.”

He came to Nebraska to provide expert testimony for prosecutors.

His conclusion: Beard, who disappeared May 31, 1989, from the Someplace Else Tavern in Ord and whose remains were found nearly three years later out in the country some six miles away, did not die of natural causes.

"No, this is what I’d call a violent death. Traumatic death. Let’s call it that," he said.

His testimony came on the fourth day of evidence in the trial. 

Coming up on the 24th anniversary of Beard’s disappearance, the case is one of the oldest cold cases in the state to go to trial.

And, while the state has not theorized yet how it believes Oldson killed Beard, opening statements made the motive clear: Rejection.

Assistant Attorney General Matt Lierman said Oldson, then 22, got upset with Beard and killed her after she turned him down in the alley outside the tavern that night. Several bar patrons had spotted them leaving together.

Oldson has denied it from the beginning.

In an interview with police two days after her disappearance, he admitted she walked out with him but said she left in someone else’s pickup after she turned him down for sex.

In December 2011, Symes examined Beard’s exhumed remains to give Nebraska investigators and prosecutors his opinion on the story her bones told.

"When you’re looking at a body long after death, you’re missing a lot of facts," he said.

Symes said he likes to be conservative in the calls he makes, but he saw enough in what to some may have looked like nicks, scrapes and cracks to strongly indicate foul play.

Symes said Beard’s injuries didn’t appear to be from a car-pedestrian crash, which often leaves broken bones above the ankle when a driver brakes and the bumper lowers. 

What if a driver had sped up to try to hit her, asked defense attorney Jim Mowbray, planting the seed of an alternate theory.

The anthropologist said some of the injuries — like the cracked skull and crushed ribs — could have come that way.

But it wouldn’t explain the stab wounds he found to her back, Symes said.

Trial is set to continue Monday.

Source: Journal Star

Outcome: John Oldson Sentenced Life-to-Life in Prison for 1989 Cathy Beard Murder

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