Exhibit 4. Active NamUs Unidentified Person Cases by Condition of Body
NUMBER OF CASES
PERCENTAGE OF CASES
NUMBER OF CASES
PERCENTAGE OF CASES
Near or complete skeleton
Partial remains with soft tissue
Partial skeletal remains
TOTAL UNRECOGNIZABLE CASES
NUMBER OF CASES
PERCENTAGE OF CASES
Null body condition field
Applying Evolving Technology to Solve Cases
As noted above, when unidentified remains are recovered, a visual identification is often not possible given the state of the remains; however, many forensic technologies and tools can help investigators. NIJ’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences has a robust research and development portfolio that supports the enhancement and creation of tools and techniques to identify, collect, analyze, interpret, and preserve evidence. For example, DNA analysis techniques can produce a profile from minute and degraded samples. Mitochondrial DNA (inherited through maternal genes) and Y-STR (inherited through paternal genes) are two common DNA analysis methods that can provide useful information when looking for familial relationships. NIJ grantees such as the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner and the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification assist criminal justice agencies around the country by using techniques to extract DNA from bone samples and apply specialized anthropological expertise to degraded skeletal remains.
New and developing technologies allow scientists to offer medical examiners more leads into what a person might have looked like. Phenotypic DNA analysis is an evolving process that examines information from a DNA profile to predict physical features of the sample’s contributor. For example, NIJ funded Yale University researchers in their development of high-resolution single nucleotide polymorphisms — variations in one’s DNA — for forensic identification of ancestry, family, and phenotype from DNA samples. Also, the University of Tennessee began evaluating a forensic chip assay and phenotypic analysis system to assess the utility and accuracy to predict phenotypic characteristics from skeletal remains.
Through NIJ’s Using DNA Technology to Identify the Missing program, agencies are able to bring new technologies to the field and integrate innovative techniques. For example, the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner purchased a 3D printer that enables it to recreate the skulls of unidentified persons. Forensic artists can then complete facial reconstructions without harming the original skull. The University of South Florida’s Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences provides a similar service and coordinates events such as the Art of Forensics program, a mass media event to display facial reconstructions completed at the institute to help identify the nameless.
Other forensic technologies being used include facial and clothing imaging. Facial imaging is similar to 3D facial reconstruction except that the skull is scanned into a computer system and computer programs then create the image. This same technique can be used on other items of evidence, such as clothing and artifacts found with the person. Radiographic analysis is also used to examine the bodies and note any old or new injuries or abnormalities.
Several agencies are also using stable isotope analysis to help determine the possible region in which an unidentified person recently lived. For example, isotopes, which are different forms of the same chemical element, vary in water and in specific foods that people eat. The variation in isotope ratios found in human remains can help scientists and investigators assess a person’s recent geographical residence or travel history. New York City, commonly referred to as the melting pot of the world, has used isotopic analysis on at least 88 cases. NIJ also offers funding for pollen analysis, which has been proposed for use in the forensic analysis of unidentified persons cases to help place a person in a specific region.
NIJ grantees have used federal funding in many ways, from testing individual cases within their state to undertaking large-scale projects. For example, the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner completed 39 exhumations for the Potter’s Field Identification Project to help resolve more than 200 missing persons cases and identify the approximately 1,200 unidentified persons buried in the city’s Potter’s Field graveyard since the late 1980s. Additionally, the University of South Florida’s Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences exhumed 51 sets of human remains from the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys, which was under state investigation to examine the suspicious circumstances of children who died or went missing while in custody.
One important factor contributing to the thousands of unidentified remains found in the United States is the increase in foreign nationals migrating to this country and those who fall victim to human trafficking, especially along the southern border states of Texas, Arizona, and California. Many of the human remains recovered in this region have limited or no records available to assist with an identification. Through NIJ programs, the Conference of Western Attorneys General (CWAG) has been working with the Mexican states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Guanajuato, and Sonora to obtain family reference samples — DNA samples collected from family members of the missing for forensic identification. The CWAG project is the first international collaborative effort of its type. Collaboration is critical to help resolve these cases across borders. To that end, CWAG has also assisted with cases of U.S. citizens who may have died while in Mexico. With the use of NIJ funding, CWAG facilitated the identification of a U.S. citizen found in Rosarito, Mexico, and was able to provide some resolution to the family and return their loved one to the United States. The project also obtained a Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) match that connected a set of remains to a family in Guanajuato, Mexico, and 13 CODIS matches to unidentified remains submitted by the Pima County (Arizona) Office of the Medical Examiner.
But More Can Still Be Done
The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Census of Medical Examiners and Coroners’ Offices, released in 2004, found that about 4,400 unidentified human decedents are reported in an average year, 1,000 of whom remain unidentified after one year. Cold case investigators require more resources and access to innovative techniques to tackle growing caseloads; however, state, local, and tribal resources continue to be scarce and agency priorities limit the investigative assets that can be dedicated to these cases. As cases persist, NIJ programs provide invaluable resources to stakeholders across the country to help find missing persons and identify human remains, ensuring that new as well as cold cases can be investigated, innovative tools and techniques can be employed, and no one is forgotten.
Law enforcement, medical examiners and coroners, forensic laboratories, and families and loved ones of the missing and unidentified need access to additional support services. Exhumation assistance, victim advocacy support, and proactive forensic sample collection, for example, would enhance support and better assist agencies and families. A proactive measure, such as biometric collection kits (e.g., fingerprints, DNA swabs, and dental records), could be offered to families for personal retention, which would provide valuable identification information in the unfortunate event that a person goes missing. Future outreach activities could focus on vulnerable and at-risk populations, as well as on families with children who are traveling or leaving home to attend college. Additional facial reconstruction services would present a greater opportunity for public identification of remains that are no longer recognizable.
Missing Persons Days
Several NIJ awardees support missing persons days, events in which the host agency encourages people who have a missing family member or friend to gather at a specified location. These events often include educational sessions to learn about missing persons resources; collection of DNA family reference samples; collection of personal and descriptive information, records, and photos of the missing loved one; and collection of the missing person’s personal items that might still be a viable source for their DNA, such as a toothbrush.
NamUs does not house DNA profiles; samples are analyzed and profiles are uploaded into the Combined DNA Index System. Known DNA samples and data are essential for missing persons databases to be successful in making identifications, and missing persons days have been effective in obtaining case and forensic information. For example, the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner solved nine missing persons cases through its 2015 missing persons day. In one case, a woman attended the missing persons day in hopes of finding her 63-year-old sister. Her family reference sample provided the information needed to identify a woman who had died after being hit by a train in 2007.
Forensic DNA testing, facial reconstruction, and isotope and phenotypic analysis are all very expensive, but law enforcement needs access to these state-of-the-art techniques if they hope to resolve these cases, strengthen public safety, and help reduce crime. These forensic services — when coupled with missing persons days, DNA family reference sample collections, dental and fingerprint examinations, and other outreach service campaigns — will hopefully lead to more case resolutions.
How do resource shortfalls affect a searching family? In one recent case, it took two years to exhume an unidentified female to collect a DNA sample due to funding and resource shortages. Although a lead was identified after 25 years of searching, the family had to wait two additional years for funding to become available to make the identification. More can and should be done.
Currently, Congress does not mandate the use of NamUs, so it is up to states and the community of stakeholders to drive this voluntary system forward, as the system is only as strong as the cases that it contains. After 10 years, stakeholder successes have encouraged states to embrace the use of NamUs. Currently, five states have passed state laws that include the use of NamUs. Although it still does not mandate the use of NamUs by law, California has been an active user and advocate of the system since inception, passing legislation that removed a barrier to sharing law enforcement information with the NamUs system and including NamUs in its training guidelines. Connecticut, New York, and Tennessee passed legislation mandating that all medical examiners enter decedent information into NamUs. The professional community is also embracing the value of NamUs: the National Association of Medical Examiners has included a NamUs link on its webpage, and the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners has included the use of NamUs in its accreditation checklist requirements.
NamUs is the only “cemetery” many families can visit until their loved one is found. In 2016, an unidentified male was found deceased in the Arizona desert. The local medical examiner’s office entered the decedent’s information into NamUs, including information about a tattoo. At the same time, the young man’s family had been regularly searching NamUs. Once the medical examiner entered the man into the system, the family almost immediately identified their loved one by some of his unique features. Not only was the case resolved, but the family did not have to feel helpless. Families can be involved in the process.
NamUs is currently undergoing a technology enterprise upgrade to enhance the suite of services that can be offered to state and local communities. In addition to an enhanced user experience and search capabilities, NIJ is focusing on a gap identified during its strategic planning: a subpopulation in need. Mass-casualty, large-scale, and multistate incidents — often called “critical incidents” — present unique challenges when it comes to finding missing persons and reuniting families. The attacks on September 11, the Boston Marathon bombings, hurricanes and tornadoes, disease outbreaks, and transportation disasters are just a few of the tragic incidents that have occurred on a massive scale and at a very high human cost. As part of the NamUs upgrade, a new component is being developed to help agencies deal with the issues of victim accounting, identification, and reunification during critical-incident events. NamUs has taken up the call to help law enforcement, medical examiners, coroners, emergency responders, and the public account for and hopefully reunite families during these chaotic events.
Join the Search
Missing and unidentified persons cases have public safety and public health implications. The identification of a person is the first step in any investigation, and any corresponding evidence uncovered could lead to resolution or justice for those lost. Many of these cases are the result of criminal activity or occurred under suspicious circumstances; therefore, identifying those who remain nameless will directly assist in safeguarding the country as a whole.
Ten years after its inception, NamUs remains committed to finding those reported missing and identifying those who are found but unknown. The program coordinates with state and local law enforcement agencies and medical examiner and coroner’s agencies to increase the quality of data, strengthen investigative services, and foster communication. NamUs continues to identify and provide needed resources to underserved and underfunded stakeholders who have significant roles and responsibilities in supporting these federal, state, local, and tribal criminal justice communities. The system directly affects criminal investigations and the resolution of missing persons and unidentified remains cases through technical assistance and forensic and analytic services, and it provides a forum for the public to provide leads and help in the search for loved ones. NamUs increases the quality of case data and the timeliness of information sharing that is so critically needed to inform criminal justice and public safety partners.
The U.S. Department of Justice is committed to helping the lost find their way home to their families, supporting law enforcement agencies in their search for the missing, and helping the medical examiners and coroners who are the final voice for the dead. To join the search or for more information, please visit NamUs.gov — where the lost will never be forgotten.
For More Information
Learn more about NamUs.
Read about NIJ funding to help identify missing persons.
About the Authors
Danielle Weiss, J.D., M.F.S., is a Booz Allen Hamilton consultant and senior forensic analyst consulting with NIJ’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences.
Dawn Schwarting, B.S., M.B.A., is a Booz Allen Hamilton consultant and senior forensic analyst consulting with NIJ’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences.
Chuck Heurich, M.F.S., is a senior physical scientist for NIJ’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences.
Heather Waltke, M.F.S, M.P.H., is the associate office director for NIJ’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences.
NIJ Journal No. 279, posted November 2017
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[note 1] Beth Pearsall and Danielle Weiss, “Solving Missing Persons Cases,”
NIJ Journal 264, November 2009.
[note 2] Nancy Ritter, “Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains: The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster,”
NIJ Journal 256, January 2007.
[note 3] All numbers in this article are current as of February 2017. For the purposes of this article, cold cases are cases for which all significant investigative leads have been exhausted.
[note 4] National Institute of Justice funding opportunity, “National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs),” grants.gov announcement number NIJ-2016-9079, posted March 4, 2016.
[note 5] National Institute of Justice funding opportunity, “Using DNA Technology to Identify the Missing,” grants.gov announcement number NIJ-2015-4055, posted February 12, 2015.
[note 6] The toll-free phone number for NamUs is 1-855-626-7600.
[note 7] Visit the NamUs Spanish site at
[note 8] Audie Cornish, interview with Todd Matthews, "Majority Of Missing Persons Cases Are Resolved,"
All Things Considered, NPR, May 7, 2013.
[note 9] For more information on DNA services provided by the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, see
[note 10] For more information on the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification services, see
[note 11] For more information on the University of South Florida’s missing persons services, such as the Art of Forensics program, see
[note 12] National Institute of Justice, “Using DNA Technology on Unidentified Individuals from New York City’s Potter’s Field,” award to the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, grant number 2009-DN-BX-K038.
[note 13] For more information on the Dozier School for Boys project, see
[note 14] For more information on the Conference of Western Attorneys General’s missing persons programs, see
[note 15] Updated data will soon be available, as the Bureau of Justice Statistics intends to perform another census of medical examiners and coroners’ offices in 2018-2019.
[note 16]S.B. 1066, Chapter 437 (Calif. 2014) ; and California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training,
Missing Persons Investigations: Guidelines & Curriculum , Sec. 14201.3, Information Accessibility (December 2011).
[note 17]Connecticut: S.H.B. 6113, Public Act No. 11-102 (Conn. 2011);
New York: S.B. A10278A/S07987A (New York 2016);
Tennessee: H.B. 0044/S.B. 0113 (Tenn. 2017).
[note 18] Since 2000, there have been approximately 161 mass fatality incidents and almost 9,000 deaths.
Date Created: November 20, 2017