Every day, victims of crimes and accidents enter Medical Examiner’s Offices across the country. In most instances, the identification of these victims are made quickly and routinely. But in some cases, the identity of the victim is a complete unknown. There are numerous circumstances that leave authorities with little or no evidence to aid in the identification of unknown victims.
If you’ve watched television in the past decade, you’ve encountered a program that deals with, or describes crime scene investigation, (CSI), and/or forensics. You’ve probably watched how effortlessly your favorite television character cracks the case with speed, perfection and the ability to sniff out even the most minute clues. Unfortunately, that’s entertainment – it’s not real life.
In the real world of victim identification, there are procedures and principles we follow as law enforcement officials and medical investigators. From California to Florida, the terminology might be slightly different, but the procedures are quite the same.
The Four Steps to Identification
- Personal Effects & Family Identification
When a decedent is brought in to the medical examiner’s office, the first step is to confirm the identity of the victim. If the body is not significantly damaged, then the next of kin can confirm positive identification by personal effects or eye witness. A driver’s license, automobile registration, witness, or other factors may give authorities a general idea as to the victim’s identity. This, of course, is always the quickest way to confirm the identification.
If personal effects and next of kin identity confirmation fails, the next step would be to compare the fingerprints of the deceased with the national fingerprint database. Not every citizen has been fingerprinted, so the process of a match is not always successful. There is also the possibility that the victim does not have a fingerprint – this usually occurs when death is caused by fire, decomposition, drowning (when the body has been submerged for any long period, or in some extreme cases, when fingerprint evidence has been purposely destroyed by an assailant.
In the absence of a fingerprint match, authorities will turn to DNA evidence. By extracting DNA from the victim, an attempt is made to match this material to a family member of someone who has reported a relative to be missing. In many cases the bodies are so destroyed or decomposed, DNA is difficult to harvest. It is considered to be fragile evidence, and can be easily labeled as ‘of little evidentiary value.’
- Dental Records
The durability of the human tooth and the material they may be restored with is unsurpassed. Even in the hottest petroleum based fire, it is very rare that the human dentition is destroyed or becomes non-diagnostic. It was this science that confirmed a majority of the nearly 1,000 victims in the World Trade Center attack on 9-11-2001.
Mathematicians claim that the reliability of forensic dental identification has a higher probability than the total number of people to ever live on the earth.
Whichever form of forensic identification that is used, it must be certain that no assumptions or presumptions will be made. Sometimes, an identity is even confirmed in more than one discipline, depending upon the uniqueness of the evidence.