The girl in the photo had brilliant blue eyes. So brilliant, in fact, that there was little doubt on the parts of investigators that the body found murdered and stuffed into a well couldn’t have been their victim: The recovered remains had eyes as brown as a sparrow, and the missing girl didn’t wear contacts. But, in a twist worthy of the movies, both young women were the same, a fact that was proved conclusively by matching dental X-rays.
It wasn’t a case of photo retouching. Her family vouched for the accuracy of the picture. Instead, the mystery of the blue-eyed missing person who surfaced as a set of brown-eyed human remains translated into a case where blunt head trauma resulted in hemorrhaging in the vitreous humor, which, combined with slight decomposition, effectively changed the eye color. Says Deputy Coroner Investigator David Van Norman of California’s San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBCSD), who worked that case, “I never looked at eye color the same way after that.”
Eye color, like many descriptors used to portray suspects, witnesses and missing persons, may seem like a no-brainer when it comes to checking the box, but it — along with a disturbing amount of other “factual” information — can be very subjective. Van Norman points to a Jane Doe his office recovered whose eyes, under post mortem examination, were described by different people as “gray, brown and green.” Says Van Norman, “Estimating eye color is far too subjective to be used to rule out a match.”
Subjectivity can affect identification
Subjectivity certainly colors the way we view certain things. Consider, for example, how different witnesses to the same crime identify the identical perpetrator. A classic classroom exercise is having someone pop into the room, commit a series of odd acts and then leave as suddenly as they appeared, and later asking the class to describe the individual. This almost always results in widely disparate eyewitness descriptions. Age, dress, height, weight, hair color and even the acts committed vary based on how the individual witness perceived them. Van Norman says that anything that is subjective can lead to misidentification of human remains. Height is a common area where mistakes are often made.
“Men tend to overstate their height, while women tend to underestimate it,” says Van Norman. Height and weight on most official documents; even the information on driver’s licenses in most states are provided by the person applying for the license. A man who claims to be six feet tall may be anywhere from 5’9” to 6”, while a woman who routinely says she is 5’4”, might be 5’3 or 5’5”. In addition, people tend to lose height as they age. A person who is correctly measured at 5 feet 6 inches at the age of 40 could be inches shorter in his or her 70s and beyond. Additionally, says Van Norman, obtaining accurate measurements of skeletal remains is both tricky and unreliable.
Because a fully fleshed human skeleton will have skin, muscle, hair and other factors that add to a person’s height, skeletal remains can indicate a height range, but an estimate based on forensic examination should be considered exactly that: an estimate. Van Norman cautions investigators tasked with identifying recovered remains to be careful when assigning height as a static qualifier.
“We have a big stick with a ruler (affixed to it) that we use as a measure and I’ve used that stick to measure bodies hundreds of times. I’ve been wrong lots and lots of times. The reason is that I start at the heel and run that up to the head, and then I find that the guy was two inches taller or two inches shorter. When people are dead and lying on a table, they are not the same stature as they are while standing,” he says.