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Doug Seccombe couldn't believe his eyes when he peered into 14-year-old Emmett Till's metal coffin.
Fifty years after the black teen's brutal murder in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman, Till's remains were exhumed in 2005 at south suburban Burr Oak Cemetery. Because of how much time had elapsed, Seccombe, an FBI agent who specializes in forensic evidence, figured Till's body would be skeletonized. But the remains were remarkably well preserved.
"This blew me away," Seccombe said during a Nov. 8 lecture about forensic investigations at Northwestern University's Chicago campus.
Authorities ordered Till's body exhumed after reopening their investigation, prompted by new evidence uncovered in a documentary on the Chicago teen. His mother, Mamie, fought to bring him home to Chicago after his murder in 1955 by two white men who were acquitted by an all-white Mississippi jury.
The men later admitted to the crime in a magazine interview, knowing that they wouldn't be tried again. Till's case was reopened a few years ago, in part, to determine whether there were other co-conspirators who could still be charged.
Seccombe's job is to piece together a crime using only what the perpetrators leave behind. A strand of hair, a stray fingerprint, even a trace of fiber from a shirt can link a suspect to a crime.
"Our job is to find it and collect it and document it," he said during his presentation at Northwestern. "We let the scientists do the exams. Our job is to get it to them in great condition so they can do the exams."
In the Till case, investigators needed to put several issues to rest, including claims about who was buried in the coffin. By exhuming his remains and performing a DNA test, authorities debunked the myth that someone else had been buried in Till's coffin. It also shed light on how Till was killed. Fragments of buckshot were found in the cranium of Till's savagely beaten body.
A subsequent autopsy showed he was shot behind the right ear, with the bullet exiting through his right eye. But what struck Seccombe most was how little the corpse had decomposed. To illustrate his point, the FBI agent showed before-and-after photos of Till's remains, drawing an audible gasp from the auditorium audience.
Till was buried in a custom-built casket with a glass top - his mother wanted the world to see what happened to her son.
At his funeral, some fainted as they passed by his coffin and the killing became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement. The glass case also helped preserve Till's remains.
"That saved us," Seccombe said.
Ultimately, no new charges arose from the exhumation. But another heart-wrenching discovery was a collage of fingerprints from mourners who touched the casket before it was lowered into the ground.
"Those fingerprints are 50 years old and look like they were put there five minutes ago," Seccombe said while showing a slide of the prints. "I've never seen anything like that."
Fingerprints, he added, are one of the sturdiest pieces of evidence since they're able to withstand wear, time and even water. "Fingerprints are pretty durable. They'll pretty much stick around unless you wipe them off."
The lecture was sponsored by the Chicago Council on Science and Technology.