When Dr. Michael “Sonny” Trimble decided he was going to become an archaeologist he probably never dreamed this career path would lead him to a witness stand where he would testify against one of history’s most notorious mass murderers. But as the head of the Iraq Mass Graves Investigation Team, that is exactly where Dr. Trimble found himself. His work proved critical to the prosecution of Saddam Hussein and Chemical Ali, helping to deliver some measure of long-denied justice for the family and friends of thousands of victims.
Dr. Trimble was responsible for preparing and leading a 22-person team that performed professional archaeological and forensic mass grave exhumations at five mass grave sites in Iraq. In only a few short weeks, he recruited and hired all team members, planned all aspects of the operation, trained Iraqi scientists and students on forensics, designed the layout for the temporary forensic lab, and purchased all of the equipment that would be needed to set up a high-tech lab in the middle of the desert. Dr. Trimble’s team used the best technology and techniques to gather the appropriate forensic evidence and built a state-of-the-art laboratory in a seemingly archaic camp of tents.
Dr. Trimble led by example, even in incredibly harsh working conditions. In temperatures that reached 130 degrees, he worked alongside other members of his team to shovel out the mass-grave sites that often contained more than 100 victims. Dr. Trimble and his team worked in a combat environment where mortar, rocket and small arms fire were not unusual. Despite these conditions, he was able to stay calm and reassure his team members, producing an atmosphere that enabled the team to get the job done quickly and efficiently.
Dr. Trimble believed that not only was it important to gather evidence with the highest standard of scientific care, but also to do so humanely. For example, he refused to release most images for the press because he wanted to respect the victims. He also worked with the State Department to ensure that the bodies were returned properly and in cases where bodies were not identified, he worked to find a community who would accept the bodies and bury them with dignity. At the end of the trial, all of the evidence and remains his team studied were returned to the Kurds who are planning on building a museum.
Although he was a scientific witness, Dr. Trimble was determined to convey the human devastation of the former regime’s crimes in his testimony. He chose to rely heavily on images to tell his story and bring the evidence to life. His staff dressed mannequins in the victims’ clothing to illustrate the nature of their gunshot wounds. He focused on the stories of 16 victims – men, women and children of all ages – to illustrate what they and hundreds of more victims like them had endured. While there was an abundance of oral testimony and paper records of Saddam and Chemical Ali’s atrocities, Dr. Trimble’s scientific evidence would prove to be the conclusive evidence that sealed the senior regime members’ convictions.
Dr. Trimble was chosen for this task because he had earned a reputation among his colleagues as an archeologist who could handle sensitive issues with dignity and professionalism. For the past 12 years, he has been the head of a unique office in the federal government dedicated to the curation and management of our nation’s cultural resources. When the remains of 419 former slaves were found at a construction site in New York City, Dr. Trimble worked with General Services Administration and Howard University to catalog, study and re-inter the bodies in a way that respected the sanctity of the remains and allowed the project to move forward. Dr. Trimble and his team also had sole responsibility for the care of the Kennewick Man, whose 9,000-year-old remains were the oldest complete body ever found in the continental United States.
Dr. Sonny Trimble’s life has been dedicated to opening up the past. In the end, this work has helped bring closure and justice to thousands who had previously lived under a cloud of uncertainty.