Magazine article State Legislatures

Identifying the Missing and the Dead: As Forensic DNA Technology Improves, New Opportunities Emerge to Solve Cases of Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains

Magazine article State Legislatures

Identifying the Missing and the Dead: As Forensic DNA Technology Improves, New Opportunities Emerge to Solve Cases of Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains

Article excerpt

Just days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks turned the World Trade Center into a smoldering Ground Zero, the National Institute of Justice convened a panel of experts to develop a process for identifying thousands of victims using DNA collected at the site of the tragedy.

The result was a customized version of CODIS, the FBI's DNA index system, created to match the DNA from victims of the attack with that provided by their relatives. The efforts led to the identification of more than a quarter of those reported missing.

Four years later, the same system was used to identify more than 100 victims of hurricane Katrina. The bodies were so badly decomposed by the high temperatures and water that DNA testing was the only way to find out who they were.

The Department of Justice helped with the cost. It awarded $1.5 million to the University of North Texas and another $4.4 million to Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to help with the huge undertaking.


The DNA technology that has become integral to investigation of criminal cases is now being put to work to help solve an estimated 40,000 cases of unidentified human remains. In most of these cases a family somewhere is seeking answers.

"DNA testing can make a big difference, but it's not being used like it could be," says John Morgan, director of Science and Technology for the National Institute of Justice.

Morgan says states need to tap into the improved DNA analysis methods used to identify World Trade Center victims. The Justice Department is working with state and local governments to help expand their capacity for forensic DNA technology to identify missing persons and unidentified human remains. Law enforcement agencies in 38 jurisdictions nationwide were awarded $14.2 million in 2005 to help solve "cold" cases and identify missing persons using DNA evidence.

The FBI's Missing Persons DNA Database contains DNA profiles of relatives of missing persons. The system also can accept genetic samples from material known to belong to the victim, such as hair from a comb or a sample taken from the victim's toothbrush. It also contains DNA profiles of unidentified human remains. States have only recently begun to conduct DNA analysis on human remains and to submit the results to the FBI and develop their own databases.

"The more information loaded into the CODIS system from across the country, the better chance we have in solving crimes and identifying missing persons," says Texas Senator Chris Harris. Texas and California are the furthest along.


The Texas Legislature created the Texas Missing Persons DNA Database using $1 million from the state's Crime Victims' Compensation Fund. The database is similar to the FBI's Missing Persons DNA system. To address concerns about privacy, the Texas legislation requires that samples remain confidential and be destroyed after a positive identification is made. The database is completely separate from the Department of Public Safety's convicted offender database.

The missing persons database has helped solve several cases. For example, in 2003, the North Richland Hill, Texas, Police Department arranged to have a DNA sample collected from the mother of Donna Williamson, a woman who had been missing since August 1982. The sample was submitted to the database, analyzed and uploaded into CODIS.

Meanwhile, the Johnson County Sheriff's Department was trying to identify a set of skeletal remains that had been stored by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's office for 10 years. When the Johnson County detective learned about the existence of the Texas database, he had a sample of the remains analyzed. The result was a 95 percent probability of a match with the sample from Donna's mother. Dental records collaborated this discovery.

"The DNA database has been integral in solving some high profile missing persons cold cases," says Senator Harris, the author of the legislation creating the database. …

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