To prove that old bones can still tell tales, plans are afoot to open a Colorado grave and establish whether five prospectors were eaten by the legendary Alferd G. Packer, or someone else, or not at all.

James Starrs, professor of law and forensic science at George Washington University's National Law Center, plans to lead an expedition for evidence that cannibalism was committed during that awful April in 1874.Packer, a Union Army veteran, has stood accused in verse and mirth of killing the victims and eating their flesh. Packer said he killed one prospector, in self-defense, and he denied eating anyone.

So famous is the case that a cafeteria at the University of Colorado and the one in the Department of Agriculture here are named in Packer's honor, a mocking commentary on their culinary qualities.

Starrs, one of the nation's forensic experts, insists his purpose is scientific: to show how anthropology - the study of man, his customs, culture and social relationships - can combine with archaeology and pathology in solving crimes.

Even after 115 years, he said, the bones will tell if cannibalism occurred. "Any scraping of tissue of flesh should leave evidence on the bone," he said. The examination may even show whether the starving prospectors ate their shoeleather, as reported.

The search will start July 17 at a grave in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains near Lake City, Colo.

The undertaking has a critic in Ervan F. Kushner, 74, an amateur historian and Packer defender. He calls Starrs' plans "macabre" and says, "I don't see the point of it."

Kushner, a retired judge and prosecutor from Paterson, N.J., is author of "Alferd G. Packer: Cannibal! Victim?"

"Mr. Starrs is a well-known forensics expert," Kushner said, "but what possible proof can there be found in the bones as to motive? If he enjoys digging in that beautiful scenery, that's a great place to dig, but how will it establish who struck the first blow?"

Some facts are known. Packer admitted killing Shannon Wilson Bell, one of the prospectors, but he said he acted out of self-defense and claimed Bell had killed and cannibalized their fellow miners.

Kushner said Packer, too, may have stripped flesh from the corpses, but only for self-preservation.

But Starrs, a 30-year student of the case, said Packer "was a concerted and deliberate and long-term liar throughout the trial. His five-hour narration is filled with inconsistency and glaring falsehoods."

By Packer's account, an awesome snowstorm in the Colorado Rockies stranded the prospectors and left them starving for a month. So he took a rifle and set out to kill an animal.

Five days later, he returned empty-handed, only to find four of his fellows dead and the hunger-crazed Bell about to attack him with a hatchet, Packer told the authorities. He said he shot and killed Bell. He said some human remains were boiling in a stewpot.

He fled, was captured but escaped. Recaptured nine years later, he was tried for murder and sentenced to hang. He wasn't charged with cannibalism - it's not a crime - but the accusation hung in the air.

Starrs said he can put to rest as a bartender's fabrication an account that says presiding judge Melville B. Gerry, in sentencing Packer to hang, bemoaned that there had been only seven Democrats in all of Hinsdale County "and ye ate five of 'em!"

The Colorado Supreme Court set aside the conviction because the legislature had repealed the death sentence during the time Packer was a fugitive.

Retried for manslaughter, Packer was sentenced to 40 years and paroled after 17. He died in 1907, still proclaiming innocence of murder.

In 1981, Kushner petitioned Richard D. Lamm, then the governor of Colorado, to pardon Packer posthumously. Lamm wouldn't but said he found himself agreeing with another Packer defender, poet Olive Nagel Porter:

"Let's not condemn poor Packer

Nor crowd his soul with abuse

Though he hardly would merit approval,

`Hunger' is valid excuse."