BARRINGTON, R.I. -- She stood in her kitchen one morning, cradling a human skull in her hands and cheerfully describing what it told her.
She traced the brow ridges over the empty eye sockets, the gaping holes of missing teeth, and the foramen ovale at the base of the skull. The person was Caucasian, the teeth fell out after death -- oh, and pencil marks note where the skull has been used for teaching future forensic scientists.
Dr. Priya Banerjee is at home with mementos of the dead. Bones and skulls from animals and artificial human remains decorate her house the way a gardener would fill their home with flowers. There are vegetables bursting from a giant skull dish, and the skeletal paws of a mother bear killed in Cranston years ago are mounted on a plaque and raised as if in supplication. Candy bones decorate her homemade French macarons, and a collection of skulls and skeletons adorn nooks and crannies throughout her home.
Banerjee said she doesn’t know what sparked her appreciation for bones and the study of death. “I think it takes a certain personality and I don’t know what that is. It’s just who I am,” she said. “This I really feel is my calling.”
Maybe it’s because the skeleton is what persists, she says, long after the being has perished. For those who can interpret them, the bones speak for the dead and educate the living.
At 42, Banerjee has conducted more than 2,500 autopsies with 153 homicide cases over her career, starting in Baltimore, and is now an assistant medical examiner for Rhode Island and owner of her own private consulting business, Anchor Forensic Pathology, for cases out of state. She’s also a clinical assistant professor of pathology at Brown University and an adjunct professor at the Boston University School of Medicine.
The field may be morbid, but Banerjee is not; she’s bubbly and curious about the mysteries revealed in what we leave behind. She and other forensic pathologists are, pretty much, the last doctors any of us will ever see.
She can talk about the many ways that people die and how we can learn from death. She has seen homicides staged as suicides and suicides that look like homicides, assembled the dismembered, and figured out what killed people found dumped outside and alone.
There was the man killed by a hitman hired by his wife -- who signed off on his organ donation. There was the long-buried victim of the mob. There are the overdose victims, whose bodies are often wet because the people with them splash them with water to try to wake them up. And there are the deaths of people from undisclosed health problems whose autopsies reveal information that end up saving the lives of their survivors.
“I’m fascinated with the process of figuring it out -- ‘Oh, look, there’s this disease or there’s this gunshot,’” Banerjee said. “I guess when you make it more academic in a way or more objective, you’re able to pull yourself away.”
The autopsy itself is clinical, sterile, and controlled. She wears protective gear and assesses the remains with an eye to what looks abnormal. She slices open the body, saws apart the rib cage, examines the organs, and looks for clues. In active scenes, she visits the place where the person died, speaks to investigators, and looks for what the environment can tell her about how they lived.
“I actually think going to scenes is very difficult. You go to a person’s home or you find them dead, it’s like you get a snapshot of who they were,” she said. “And, when I have to talk to families, that’s hard because people will cry on the phone. They’ll say that was my child, or we were married 50 years and now my husband’s gone. It hits you, it’s that personal connection.”
Her highest profile case was consulting on the civil lawsuit filed on behalf of the family of Breonna Taylor. The 26-year-old Black woman was killed in March 2020 when Louisville, Ky., officers fired into her apartment while executing a “no-knock” warrant.
Banerjee reviewed the sealed autopsy, the police surveillance reports, photos from the scene, ballistics analysis, and other pieces of the investigation, and drew a body diagram to interpret Taylor’s last moments. She said the lawyer for Taylor’s family gasped when she told him what she found:
Taylor was shot in the foot and unable to walk, then took a bullet to the chest that caused her to bleed internally. The young woman had seconds to live.
Taylor’s death launched protests around the country, demanding justice for her, and in September, her family received a $12 million settlement from the city of Louisville and a promise to reform its police practices.
Her family’s lawyer gave Banerjee a black bullhorn, like those used in protests. “Say Her Name,” the chant repeated at protests, is printed on one side.
“I just do think it was a horrible killing. I don’t usually get very emotionally invested in my cases because in some ways you have to emotionally remove yourself, and I have to look at it objectively,” Banerjee said. “But you know, knowing the whole story, it just broke my heart.”