For the last year we’ve talked about composite sketches and their value to criminal investigations. That makes sense because it’s the most utilized sub-discipline of forensic art.
But there is another sub-discipline that’s also important in law enforcement’s search for suspects.
Law enforcement and medico-legal investigators have the daunting task of matching names to unidentified human remains. Though their duties are somewhat different, in a parallel sense, they are quite similar. That's because both are tasked with treating the dead with dignity, restoring their identity and giving them justice.
In the 1980's, I was a young detective assigned to follow up missing person's cases. Most cases ended well when the person returned home. Everyone was happy. Those who didn't were considered "long-term" missing and often stayed missing. Those were the most difficult cases. For whatever reason they went missing, it was hard on the families, who were left with a feeling of hopelessness.
Back then, we didn't have the training, resources and legislative guidelines that are available today. The only technology we had were dental x-rays, teletype machines and shoe leather. In retrospect, I understand why families were so frustrated with police.
Today, missing person's cases are treated with higher priority. Now, investigators can take advantage of a myriad of training opportunities and technologies like DNA, NamUs and scores of volunteer organizations ready to assist law enforcement.
There are also better-defined reporting guidelines to help make sure police act with a sense of urgency. Still, many of those reported missing return home safely, on their own, or are located by law enforcement. Unfortunately, others are found deceased in various stages of decomposition. In most cases only the skull is located making it impossible to publicize their faces in the media.
When traditional methods for identification - fingerprints, dental x-rays and DNA fail to identify the person, law enforcement and medico-legal investigators must turn to a trained forensic artist to make faces "media-ready".
In most of these cases someone is out there searching for their missing loved one who may or may not be far away. They scour the news and social media/internet looking for a familiar face.
Postmortem and facial approximation images have proven to be powerful media tools that have helped identify countless persons who otherwise might have remain unidentified. I’ve always believed that if you identify an unknown homicide victim, the suspect isn’t far behind.
This makes an even more compelling case for putting a face on an unidentified skull or tidying up the decomposed face of a John/Jane Doe. Even if you don’t identify a suspect, you are able to restore their dignity by giving them back their most valuable possession – their name.
Next month, we’ll add context to this month’s newsletter by discussing a two-county, two-skull murder mystery I helped solve through facial reconstruction.
In the meantime, keep your pencils sharp and your stylus charged up.