Identifying the unknown

Clark County Coroner's Office uses Web to put a name with a face

The working group in this room came up with the idea of posting pictures of deceased, unidentified persons on the Web and asking the public to take a look and respond if they recognized someone.

The development team then approached the county for help with building the site. Although the county was willing to provide its services, this site was low on the priority list. Taking matters into their own hands, one of the office's part-time employees purchased a few how-to books on building Web sites and created the site.

At the same time the site was being built, the office was converting from standard to digital photography. "With the advent of digital photography, you can literally create a face by taking a damaged area, copying one side and then flipping the image," notes Murphy. He estimates that 40 to 50 percent of the photos on the site have been retouched in some fashion.

Murphy also cautions that these are not glamour shots or airbrushed magazine photos. They are identification photos. Efforts are taken to conceal everything except the face, which may be altered to make the image more palatable to the general public, but beyond that, they are photos of deceased persons. "We do some very, very basic things, and if we think the photo is viewable, we may not even touch it at all," he says. Sometimes photos of tattoos or identifiable scars also are placed on the site.

Many other unidentified persons sites choose to use artist renderings or claymation representations of the deceased individuals. Initially, the decision to post photos was made because of the costs involved in hiring an artist — up to $3,000 per sketch — when there isn't one on staff. Since the launch of the site, Dalene Nielson, the artist of the "Emanuel" rendering used to help solve the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case, has volunteered her services to create sketches of people where the face is too disfigured to post online. Therefore, now sketches also appear on the site.

Murphy feels that both photos and artist's renderings have their advantages. "I think people recognize photos much quicker than they do drawings if they really know the person," he says. "If they may have seen the person once in passing, then the drawing may do something that the photo wouldn't."

With the site complete, the coroner's office went back to the county who agreed to post it. "Solutions to problems are not always money based," notes Murphy, "but they have to be done with compassion and with an eye toward success."

Success quiets controversy

The decision to post photos of the deceased was very controversial, but Murphy, only having been coroner for four months at the time, teases that "I was too dumb or naïve to know it was a bad idea or might be considered a bad idea. All I thought of was if we identify people, and we can reunite families with their deceased, how is that a bad thing?"

Unfortunately, this was not the initial view of the media and some medical examiner's offices who described the site as macabre, inappropriate and disrespectful of the dead.

This dissent was quickly quieted following the successful launch. The first identification was made within 24 hours of the site's unveiling. Three additional IDs were made within the first two months. In 2004, eight decedents were identified, six in 2005 and one in 2007. "All these cases are a direct result of the task force and/or the Web site," Murphy points out. "Almost all of them have some type of Web site connection."

Both the public and police agencies have successfully used the site to make IDs. In the Jane "Cordova" Doe case, a Tulare County (California) Sherriff's Department detective utilized the site after receiving a missing person's report.

Jane "Cordova" Doe, a 3-year-old Hispanic girl, was found beaten to death and placed in a Dumpster on January 12, 2006. She was wearing a white fleece jacket with pink hearts on it. Because of her age, there were no fingerprints on file and anti-mortem dentals were not available. Therefore, the Clark County Coroner's Office set aside its 90-day protocol and put her image online immediately.

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