We sat down for an introduction and interview with Gaille MacKinnon, Lead Forensic Anthropologist and a Lead Forensic Archaeologist here at Alecto Forensics. Gaille is a senior reporting scientist and an experienced member of the team, having been a consultant in these disciplines since 1998.
Gaille has worked with both national and international government and non-governmental agencies across the globe, and her expertise has been immeasurably useful to HM Government, the United Nations, the British Army and the National Crime Agency. In the international arena, her wealth of expertise in forensic anthropology and archaeology has been utilised in investigations into war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, mass fatality and terrorist incidents, transportation accidents, and natural disasters.
Reflecting upon years of experience as an expert adviser, Gaille explains how no one case mirrors another, and how harmful the CSI effect can be on influencing not only jurors, but also potential criminals.
When did you first know you wanted a career in forensics?
“I didn’t! I was a Near Eastern archaeologist and I was called along with a number of British and international archaeologists to assist the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia with the search, location and excavation of mass graves of individual killed during the Bosnian war.
“That was my route in. Forensics was completely unstudied by me at that point.”
What does a normal day at work look like to you?
“There is no normal day at work, as your day can change in a moment. I can be attending a crime scene, a laboratory, or a post mortem examination on any one given day. There is always a bag packed by the door as you can be asked to attend a crime scene with very little notice!”
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
“Definitely managing a large major crime caseload. The job itself can often be challenging, I find each one very interesting and every case is different, of course.”
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
“My job is very, very rewarding. Particularly those cases that involve the identification of unknown human remains where it’s ultimately about finding out who they are and ultimately returning them to their families.”
What skills did you develop early on in your career?
“The ability to be highly adaptable, dedicated, and driven to deliver the best of my experience and expertise to each case I am involved in.”
How do you cope with the stresses/trauma of working as a forensic anthropologist/ archaeologist?
“Because every case is different they can affect you in different ways. Some investigations have a much greater impact than others, and often you don’t know what the trigger will be. The key is to be aware and remain cognisant of how you and the other scientists may be feeling when attending a difficult scene ”
Would you rather work in the lab, in post-mortem examinations, or at a scene?
“It’s all about working to the successful conclusion of a case, so I don’t prefer one environment over the other. They all need to be completed and each environment has different challenges and difficulties. Again, it really depends on the type of investigation that you’re working on as to what may be more difficult, what might take longer to complete, or more demanding or more strenuous; be that physically or mentally.”
What is the most memorable scene you’ve worked on?
“It’s difficult to single one out because they each scene memorable in their own ways. They all had their challenges, so it’s not as simple as that really. It’s all challenging but it’s what I’ve trained to do, therefore it’s really a combination of my training, my education, and my particular skillset.
“I’ve worked on many high-profile cases internationally. Some of my most memorable work was for the International Commission for Missing Persons in Bosnia, the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City for the World Trade Center, the 7/7 London bombings and the terrorist attacks that occurred in Iraq during the war.
“I think every scene is memorable in a certain way, and certainly to the families whose loved ones are involved that scene is the most important scene that you will ever attend.”
How has forensic science changed throughout your career?
“It’s changed because there are now a lot of forensic academic degrees that are on offer. When I started, they didn’t exist, certainly not for anthropology and archaeology.
“The academic sector has adjusted to providing courses that have a specific forensic focus. In the past the route into the profession was via a degree in the hard sciences such as chemistry or biology.
“However, today there are a host of specific forensic causes in a wide range of disciplines. Take anthropology as an example. There are a multitude of anthropology degrees on offer such as paleoanthropology, bioanthropology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, social anthropology etc.
“However by putting ‘forensic’ in front of the course and making it more specific to the forensic field it helps to direct to students who have a desire to work in the field with some fundamental training.”
Who or what inspires you?
“My inspiration continues to be the myriad of highly experienced forensic professionals that I have had the privilege to work with across my twenty-five year career in both UK major crime and international human rights investigations.
“It’s the scientists, medical and police professionals who work tirelessly, diligently, and – very often – without public recognition or acclaim, in order to see the case through to successful completion and prosecution. Those are the people who are inspiring to me.”
How do you motivate yourself and your team?
“Our casework is our motivation – each case brings unique challenges and opportunities to ‘think outside the box’ in order to bring out the best in both yourself and other members of your team.”
How do you separate your feelings and emotions from difficult decisions?
“This depends on the difficult decision that is being made. Some decisions are very clear cut and there is no ambiguity or indecision, other decisions are more nuanced and may require careful consideration before the decision can be reached.”
How authentic is the crime scene investigation we see portrayed on television?
“It’s very dramatised and very glamourised. In reality, the investigators are often stood out in the pouring rain, the freezing cold, or the baking heat. Everyone has crime scene suits on and in real life if you go into a mortuary or a laboratory it’s certainly not low-lights, lots of mirrored surfaces, and machines that you can touch to instantly retrieve all of the information you may require!
“However, television dramatisations are not all harmless fun and there is a very real danger that such programs could be inadvertently giving offenders ideas on how to execute a crime and how not to get caught. So, while it’s important to shed light on how crime scenes are attended and examined (or the “Hollywood how”), because there’s so much public fascination that comes with it, it can be hugely detrimental and somewhat dangerous too.”