The Importance of Patient Identification in Forensics

Body identification is one of the core responsibilities of a forensic pathologist yet is also probably the most common one to be overlooked. Most of the deceased people who come to our office are visually identifiable, and the identity may already have been confirmed if they were transported to the hospital. In some situations, though, the body may be disfigured by fire, decomposition, injury, or there may only be partial remains recovered. In incidents with multiple fatalities, we need to be sure the correct remains are returned to the correct family. Particularly when foul play is involved, there may be intentional attempts to conceal the decedent’s identity or disguise them as another person.

There are two different levels of identification: “positive” identification (the gold standard) and “presumptive” identification.

The three generally accepted forms of “positive” identification are DNA comparison, fingerprint comparison, and radiograph comparison. While television shows have DNA “matches” coming back in the time it takes for a commercial break, DNA identification can pose challenges. A pre-existing specimen from the decedent or close family members is needed for comparison, which means you need to already have some suspicion of who they are. If they’ve been previously arrested or charged with a felony (the laws vary slightly by state), their DNA may have been uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), and a match may potentially be obtained blindly by uploading the decedent’s sample. By comparison, one can collect fingerprints from a decedent and submit them to the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) for relatively rapid identification. Many people have been fingerprinted in their lifetime, whether for relatively minor arrests, employment, or background checks. However, there are still limitations. The hands (or at least fingertips) need to be intact, with printable skin. For mummified remains, the tissue can be rehydrated by soaking in sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide to obtain legible prints. “Degloved” remains, where the skin has sloughed from the hands due to decomposition, can be fingerprinted by inserting one’s gloved hand into the sloughed skin.

Radiographs, like DNA, are limited by the need to have a pre-existing sample from the decedent (meaning you need to know who they might be). Radiographs are invaluable when trying to identify someone with no usable fingerprints, or no fingerprints on file. A variety of locations can be used for comparison, including the dentition, frontal sinuses, vertebral processes, healed fractures, or orthopedic implants. Serial numbers on implanted devices can also be traced back to the decedent, although not all implantable devices have such markings.

“Presumptive” identifications are based on many other common sense factors including context, visual identification, tattoos, belongings, and clothing. Depending on the context of the case, a presumptive identification may suffice. For a decomposed body in a secure apartment occupied by a single, elderly person the neighbors haven’t seen in days, monogrammed dentures within the mouth may be sufficient. But in a fire with three charred female victims, aged 20-25, it’s much more important to confirm the identifications by a positive method. As I mentioned earlier any situation involving foul play may provide motivation for to conceal a victim’s identity, and so all homicide victims must be positively identified. It’s often taken for granted that the tag on our patient’s toe is accurate, but we need to approach our autopsies with the same level of diligence a laboratorian has when evaluating the label on a blood tube. Knowing who your patient is, and who your sample comes from, is the first critical step for any pathologist.

The mummified remains of a young adult were found in an abandoned house; while the fingertips were initially too dessicated to yield fingerprints, rehydration revealed excellent ridge details. Fingerprints were then uploaded to AFIS, and the decedent was identified within an hour.
For skeletal remains with intact teeth, dental radiographs of the remains can be used for identification; however, for edentulous patients, a different strategy must be used.

-Alison Krywanczyk, MD, FASCP, is currently a Deputy Medical Examiner at the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office.

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