Taking nothing at face value

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...

“The girl was identified through dental records; what had happened was that the mom had been trying to report her daughter missing and (the originating agency) wouldn’t take a report. They finally (took a report) in March of 2006 and entered that as the date of last contact,” says Castillo.

Both Van Norman and Lyle say that even the presence or absence of medical devices, such as metal plates, screws or pacemakers, should not be used as proof positive for identification. “Braces, rods, screws … they remain permanent much of the time, but sometimes they’re used to stabilize the bone, then they open them up and unscrew the plate. That does happen,” says Lyle.

As for obtaining an accurate medical history, many people hold onto things doctors say to them, even in passing. “The doctor says you’ve got a bad valve and may need it replaced and they walk out of the doctor’s office and it becomes family lore, when all it is really is an innocent heart murmur,” says Lyle.

Three proper identifiers

Anything that is subject to human error can be misinterpreted. Van Norman says he knows one out-of-state agency that continues to use the date the person is reported missing also as the date of the incident. And, while tattoos certainly aid identification, like implanted medical devices they can also be removed or altered, and aren’t visible on skeletons or corpses in advanced states of decomposition. Anecdotal information concerning features and dates may be erroneous, but some things never lie. The big three identifiers are solidly based in science: Fingerprints, dental X-rays and DNA.

Some states require that licensed drivers have fingerprints on record with that state’s department of motor vehicles. Van Norman says that in addition to service members, individuals who have been processed through the criminal justice system and police, many employers now require fingerprinting. Simply because the individual’s prints aren’t in a national or state database doesn’t mean they don’t exist somewhere else. He also points out nearly everyone has visited a dentist at least once in his or her life. He suggests digging deeper for those records, even when the family believes there are none.

The third method of positively identifying remains (DNA) is dependent on the presence of specific conditions: There must be source material at both ends. In cases where remains are very old and degraded, working samples can be difficult to obtain, but if they are obtainable, they can move mountains.

Van Norman says that computers are, “Wicked fast but also remarkably dumb; they compare data, but they can’t do our thinking for us.” He believes comparing unidentified remains versus reported missing via computer-generated data, while helpful to some degree, is fallible and the evidence supports that conclusion. Says the veteran coroner’s investigator, “Concentrate on submitting forensic evidence — that’s where you stand the greatest chance of success.”

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