The People’s Temple Agricultural Project came to be known to the world as the Jonestown Massacre due to the incident that occurred on November 18, 1978. The peoples temple was founded by James Warren “Jim” Jones however, after obtaining members, the religious organization relocated to Guyana, South America. Jones ran the site like a prison camp. His followers received little food and weren’t allowed to leave. Armed guards stood at the compound’s perimeter. Jones often preached over the loudspeaker system at Jonestown. Fearful of a plot against him, he started conducting suicide drills. His followers were woken up in the middle of the night. They would receive a cup with a red liquid that they were told contained poison, which they were ordered to drink. After 45 minutes or so, the members were told that they were not going to die, that they had just passed a loyalty test. These drills were arguably in preparation for the real massacre, which was almost identical. In the actual massacre, victims had consumed a Kool-Aid drink mixed with cyanide, tranquilisers and sedatives. At the time of the massacre, the population of Jonestown had grown to approximately 900 people, over 270 of these people were children. It is still unclear whether this was a mass suicide or, if the victims were forced.
The types of forensic evidence that can be gathered are; dental evidence, evidence of poisoning, bulletwound(s), fingerprints, firearms and clothing. The mass suicide/murder of The People’s Temple members resulted in the deaths of 923 people. Autopsies were conducted on seven significant bodies via four forensic pathologists from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and a civilian consultant. Forensic dentistry played a big role in the identification of bodies. To identify a person from his or her teeth, a forensic dentist must have a dental record or records from the dentist of the deceased. In the case of Jonestown, or any other incident involving multiple deaths, forensic dentists receive a list of possible individuals and compare available records with the teeth and find a match; even if only a few teeth are available, a forensic dentist can still make a positive identification. The best comparisons come from x-rays, but even if those aren’t available, notations on the tooth chart can tell the dentist if the teeth are the same. The analysis and comparison of fingerprints was also a technique that was used. There are many methods and steps to analysing fingerprints, the first step is “lifting a print” (to take a permanent impression of the print) this is most commonly done by placing a rubber tape with an adhesive surface over a print that has been dusted with carbon black powder, once the tape is completely flat over the print it is then peeled off and placed carefully on a latent lift card for preservation. This method can, however, limit investigators ability to perform other techniques that could reveal valuable information, this is due to fingerprinting powders contaminating evidence. After fingerprinting and dentistry came pathology. The Government of Guyana began an investigation of the area of the massacre on November 20th – which lasted around 36 hours. The U.S government also intercepted. The first set of bodies was taken to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on November 23rd. An error that can be identified here is the fact that a few bodies were removed that belonged to the same family and their relationships to each other weren’t recorded. Once all the bodies arrived, a team of pathologists, dentists and technicians began examining them. They were examined by a group made up of of one pathologist and two graves registration technicians.
It was discovered that the clothes the bodies wore had names written on them but it became obvious that the people of Jonestown often shared clothes, as some clothes had more than one name on them. This confirms that Jonestown was a communal community. Gender, age, race, hair colour and length and weight of the bodies were recorded. Most of the bodies had maggots in them because of the decomposition. The dental team helped to find out the ages of the bodies. Most of the bodies’ teeth were pink. The cause of this was thought to be because of cyanide poisoning – every victim of the mass homicide/suicide had consumed a Kool-Aid drink laced with cyanide. The forensic evidence found was used to identify the bodies after the massacre; 666 bodies were successfully identified using the aforementioned methods, but 247 remain unidentified. An autopsy of Jones himself found he died of a fatal bullet wound behind his left temple – the firearm used here was found a metre* away from Jones’ body. Furthermore, only seven other bodies were autopsied which is an error as there were many more bodies which could have been examined.
In conclusion, the Jonestown massacre case was not exactly solved as it is still unclear whether it was a mass murder or a suicide. Lots of evidence was recovered including dental evidence, fingerprints, gunshot wounds, evidence of poisoning, clothing and firearms. Multiple errors were made in the post-mortem investigation including the fact that family members were not kept together. This could have been stopped before the transportation of the bodies, had there been evidence suggesting a family relationship between victims beforehand. Overall, the case was arguably mishandled and abundant with mistakes and errors. Furthermore, not nearly enough evidence was gathered when considering the scale of the massacre, however, the evidence gathered did indeed further the investigation.
- Goodwin, D., (2016), Fingerprint Evidence, available at: http://www.forensicequity.com/fingerprint-evidence-l2-27.html
- White, T. D., Folkens P.A., (2005), The Human Bone Manual
- Nelson, S., (2006), Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
- Moore, R., (2016), Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and the Peoples Temple, available at: http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/