How are missing persons identified?
The process of identification can begin even before an actual body is found - as soon as a person or group is reported missing or presumed dead. Initially, this involves collecting antemortem data. Antemortem data refers to any information or document collected for a person during their life that could assist in identifying them after their death. This includes a physical description of their sex, age, hair colour, stature etc; medical and dental records (including radiographs); individualizing traits like tattoos; and recent photographs. If available, antemortem information also includes details of how a person was dressed at the time of their disappearance and what personal effects they might have been carrying. Any piece of evidence that might identify the person is relevant. Once collected, the data can be compared to similar information obtained from unidentified dead bodies in an attempt to find a match. Whether a single individual is missing or whether multiple fatalities are involved, antemortem records are an essential component of the identification process.
Who provides information about a missing person?
Normally, family members, friends or close associates are the first to be asked for information regarding a missing or presumed dead individual. In addition, investigators may ask for assistance from the general public to find the last person who saw the disappeared individual. Family doctors or dentists are often involved since they are able to provide the relevant medical records. Once obtained, access to antemortem information is restricted to those involved in performing the identifications - this includes coroners, medical examiners, law enforcement agencies and other organizations charged with the identification of missing persons.
Who recovers the body?
When a body is found, strict protocols govern how the remains are handled and collected. The police are usually the first on the scene, followed closely by the coroner or medical examiner who is responsible for the body. Depending on the circumstances, other specialists such as archaeologists or anthropologists may be asked to assist in the recovery of the body or the collection of evidence from the scene. Archaeology and anthropology provide an efficient and accurate way to retrieve clues from a possible crime scene and can help investigators understand the events surrounding the deposition of the body. At this point, everything related to the remains is mapped in situ (exactly where it was found), photographed, collected and sealed as evidence since it might be relevant to the case. From now on, all the associated material could be used in court. A document called a chain of custody records a description of each object and the exact location where it was found, as well as the name and affiliation of each person in possession of the evidence.
What happens to the remains and the evidence?
All the evidence collected at a scene must be transported to a facility where it can be described, photographed and labelled under secure and confidential conditions. Any human remains go to a medical facility, usually a morgue, for an autopsy (Greek for ‘seeing for oneself’). Also known as a postmortem, an autopsy is normally performed by a pathologist, a medical doctor who specialized in the study and diagnosis of diseases. Other professionals like odontologists (dental specialists), anthropologists (if the body is decomposed), or radiologists may also be asked to examine the remains. Any obvious medical conditions will be recorded, and radiographs of the mouth and body are taken. If possible, they will collect fingerprints and samples for DNA analysis. Since their expertise may be used in court in relation to a crime, these professionals may also call themselves forensic specialists. In this context, the forensic pathologist examines the body to determined cause and manner of death. The forensic odontologist analyzes and describes the dental traits. If only skeletal remains are present, a forensic anthropologist examines the bones to create a basic description of the individual, called a biological profile.
Many scientific disciplines can be applied to the identification process and some fields are developing techniques especially for forensic purposes. For example optometry (a branch of medicine concerned with eyes and related structures) has developed a simple method to match eyewear prescriptions with recorded patient information. To do this, a large database was created to register individual prescriptions. When eyewear is found at a scene, a program calculates the frequency with which such a prescription could occur in the defined population. While such methods are potentially useful in forensic investigations, it is important to remember that any conclusions reached by them must achieve a very high degree of scientific rigour to be accepted in court.
How are antemortem and postmortem comparisons made?
When the relevant antemortem information on a missing person has been gathered and the data has been collected on the found human remains, the next step of the identification process begins. This involves comparing the two sets of information to look for features that match. Depending on the circumstances, the comparison may be done by a coroner, medical examiner, or law enforcement agent. In many cases there is a coordinated effort by different agencies. If a possible match is found, all the relevant information must be checked for accuracy and consistency. Not all evidence has the same value for identification, however. For example, if the clothing found with the body appears to match the description given in the antemortem record, this provides only a presumptive identification, not a positive identification. Such common objects like clothing cannot provide a positive identification because multiple individuals could have the same items. On the other hand, if the fingerprints taken on the body match the fingerprints taken when the person was alive, this is considered a positive identification because the probability of two individuals having the same print is very low. Positive identifications may also be made through antemortem and postmortem comparisons of DNA, dental or medical radiographs, distinct fractures, tattoos or particular diseases. In cases where more than one individual is involved, a positive identification might require several techniques and multiple samples because the bodies might be mixed up. In this case, associated evidence becomes relevant and can be used to corroborate the identity of the person. Once positively identified, the body is then delivered to a funeral home or the family for final disposition.
Who may ask for an autopsy?
Under normal circumstances, the body of a deceased person belongs to their family or next of kin (a close relative). The family has the right to order an autopsy if they wish to know the exact cause (e.g. disease, injury or abnormality) or manner (natural, accident, suicide, homicide, or undetermined) of death. However, if a death occurs under suspicious circumstances, the responsibilities of State override the wishes of the family and a coroner or medical examiner may order a postmortem without seeking permission from the deceased’s relatives.
What issues are associated with identification?
All humans have the right to be treated with respect, even after death. However, medicolegal efforts to identify an individual sometimes conflict with the beliefs or practices of their families. For example, the family of a deceased person may not wish to have certain medical procedures conducted on their loved one or agree with the methods that are required for identification. Specific religious requirements for the proper handling and treatment of the body after death strongly influence a family’s reaction to the need for an autopsy. Some religions, such as Islam and Judaism, teach that a body must be buried soon after death and do not allow voluntary autopsies because they are considered a desecration of the person. However, most religious leaders agree that there are exceptions. For example, an autopsy may be permitted if the information gleaned from it might save a life. Similarly, if foul play is suspected, an autopsy is allowed in order to help the police solve the crime.
Burial may also cause conflicts between families and investigators. For example, Islam and Judaism have a special prohibition against burying an incomplete body. According to some, if the whole body is not buried, it is as if no burial took place at all. This obviously presents challenges for investigators who may need to retain tissue samples for future tests. As in most aspects of life, professionals working with human remains must be sensitive to different perspectives and try to accommodate their needs as best they can. In general, death investigators strive to respect religious wishes and treat all human remains with respect and dignity. In addition, they make every effort to perform their duties as efficiently as possible to minimize any additional stress to the family. But it is also important to remember that investigators are primarily responsible for determining the circumstances of a death and cultural and religious concerns may have to be set aside in order to understand what happened. This is especially true if a crime has been committed. In this respect, an investigator’s first duty is to the deceased themselves - to their identification and to the resolution and prevention of the conditions that caused their death.
How has the media affected the identification process?
For some time now, forensic science has been a popular topic for TV programs, movies and books. However, many of these media represent the work of forensic scientists with less accuracy and more drama than is the case in real life. In turn, this has generated a number of misconceptions about what can be achieved through forensic methods – a problem dubbed “the CSI effect”. This effect has caused widespread confusion regarding how crimes are ‘solved’ and by whom. In particular, fictional representations of forensic investigations tend to grossly exaggerate - if not actually fabricate - the kinds of equipment used, the process and accuracy of the methods, and the abilities of each specialty. In addition, analysts worry that TV viewers will come to believe that real forensic science is as swift as it is portrayed in the shows. Instead of the minutes that pass on TV, real forensic analyses often take days or weeks to complete. And sometimes they fail! False impressions also surround the degree to which each forensic analyst is involved in a case. Real forensic scientists are specialists who develop very specific skills in one area. Unlike their fictional counterparts, they do not all interview suspects, run after the criminals, perform autopsies and analyse the skeletal remains as part of their daily tasks!
While these inaccuracies may seem merely frustrating, they can have potentially devastating effects if brought to the court during real criminal proceedings. Lawyers, judges and jurors may be influenced by such misinformation and have unrealistic expectations of the accuracy and reliability of the evidence, results or testimony provided by forensic experts. As a result, forensic scientists must be especially careful to ensure that they are clear about the abilities and limitations of their work and do not allow misunderstandings to persist.