investigating unidentified human remains

Investigating Unidentified Human Remains

By: Joseph Giacalone

The first thing to do in any death investigation is to determine who your victim is, but what happens when you have unidentified human remains? These cases are the toughest of all to solve, take it from someone that spent years working to identify human remains from the World Trade Center attack. Often, these cases go beyond the routine and primary identification procedures of fingerprint submissions or dental comparisons. Even with DNA there is no guarantee that you will identify your victim – you still need a known DNA sample to make a successful comparison.

Death investigations are a team sport. The detectives and the medical examiner / coroner, must work together with the common goal of identifying the human remains. Identifying human remains always starts at the crime scene investigation. A forensic anthropologist, especially at the scene, can save countless hours by being able to identify if the remains are even human. The medical examiner / coroner can then attempt to establish the cause and manner of death. Other forensic specialists such as the odontologist (dentist), entomologist (insects) or botanist (plants) will often play a critical role in identification and investigation.

Investigators may find and use several databases that may help identify human remains including: the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). Each system records information on missing individuals as well as catalogue human remains. These systems are searchable databases that law enforcement can use to identify remains and identify serial crimes. NamUs, even allows civilians the opportunity to upload information into the program to help in identifying their loved ones.

A positive identification does four things for the investigator:

  1. Establish leads
  2. Investigative timeline
  3. Develop suspects
  4. Build Victimology

Since statistics show that most people are victimized by who they know, it is of the utmost importance to make identification. Without an identification, you have no leads. There is an old investigation maxim, “Good info good case, no info no case.” It is the most important element of building a complete Victimology. The Victimology tells investigators who the person was, what they liked to do, who their friends, family and co-workers were and sometimes their enemies.

The Victimology allows the investigator to establish the timeline of events leading up to the persons disappearance and subsequent demise, whether it will be classified by the medical examiner / coroner as natural, accidental, suicide or homicide. The timeline will enable investigators to corroborate or disprove alibis, establish the element of opportunity and provide a starting point from where to launch the investigation from. The timeline can be recorded electronically, on a flip chart, on a chalkboard or anywhere the investigators can have access to it.

When investigators are faced with the situation where the victim’s remains are badly decomposed, they’re not a local resident or had little or no next of kin, they must rely on secondary identification procedures. In these situations, the media will play an important role to get the information out in order to help identify the remains. Sometimes, unique jewelry, tattoos, scars, “pocket litter,” clothing or other markings can be used on a “Request for Information” poster, Crime Stoppers website or the local television news show or daily paper. Photographs of the remains should be used whenever they are not to shocking to the average citizen. If possible, computer generated photos, edited photos or sketches should be used instead.

Investigators must remember that many human remains that are discovered will be from outside of the vicinity, so national media coverage is extremely important. Investigators must be inventive in secondary forms of identification and are only limited by their imagination. If there is an idea it should be used.