It's Evident


Emerging Forensic Identification Technologies: Heat Shock for Cold Cases
Marian Daggett, Research Attorney

Locating and identifying missing persons remains one of the most challenging aspects of forensic investigation. Part of the challenge lies in finding remains, while the much greater challenge involves identifying the remains and matching them to an actual person. Many times the remains are not properly collected or processed before disposal, and most often, the information collected involves a tedious process of accurate input into a database system. Once uploaded, the information sits indefinitely unless cross-referenced through diligent searches of submitted parallel evidence. A single sample of DNA collected from human remains, for example, must be matched to another separately-collected reference sample of DNA from a close family member; each of these pieces of biological evidence must be carefully analyzed in the laboratory and recorded properly into the database. These same procedures are undertaken for the comparison of fingerprints, photographs, skeletal remains, written descriptions, dental records, and other biological samples.

In a recent article written about the prevalence of cases involving missing persons, the following statistics were noted: "On any given day, there are as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases in the United States. Every year, tens of thousands of people vanish under suspicious circumstances. Viewed over a 20-year period, the number of missing persons can be estimated in the hundreds of thousands. … More than 40,000 sets of human remains that cannot be identified through conventional means are held in the evidence rooms of medical examiners throughout the country. But only 6,000 of these cases—15 percent—have been entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database." 1

Considering the arduous task of databasing information on missing persons, it is no wonder that so many missing person files go unsolved. One ambitious laboratory, however, has excelled at creating a successful human identification program. The Center for Human Identification has streamlined the process of identifying DNA, providing a model for future development and growth in forensic identification technologies.


The Center for Human Identification at the Department of Pathology & Anatomy of the University of North Texas specializes in "the examination of biological evidence and determining its source."2 The laboratory programs combine a group of identification initiatives including resources for paternity testing, forensic analysis, and missing persons cases. Through the analysis programs of the center, the scientists have already processed more than 680 unidentified human remains and 1600 family reference samples.3

Specifically, the DNA Identity Testing initiatives serve the following purposes: "to determine parentage with a high degree of precision, forensic analysis of evidentiary samples to help solve crimes, in identification of missing persons and human remains, and identification and ticks carrying a variety of communicable diseases."4 Two main laboratory services analyze human DNA for the center: paternity testing and forensic testing. The Paternity Testing program5 offers website resources for attorneys, instructions on specimen collection, and detailed descriptions of the types of paternity testing. Simultaneously, the Forensic Testing program6 offers descriptive summaries of the body identification process and cases involving criminal paternity, as well as instructions for submitting cases and samples.

The DNA Identification Laboratory uses Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) to analyze DNA samples, found both in the nucleus of human cells and in the cellular mitochondria. DNA derived from the nucleus, or nuclear DNA, has been traditionally tested in forensic analysis. Mitochondrial DNA, a newer component of forensic analysis, can be used for smaller or limited samples. Mitochondrial DNA has been applied most recently in the Genographic Project to trace ancestry through maternal lineage.7

The ability of the laboratories at the Center for Human Identification to analyze both nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA is incredible. With these capabilities, even trace amounts of biological, odontological, and skeletal evidence can be used for analysis and identification.

Once the samples of DNA are analyzed, they are uploaded as DNA profiles in the Texas Missing Persons DNA Database8 and the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS)9 database. These databases can be accessed online throughout the state of Texas and around the country, connecting law enforcement officers to the latest recorded information on DNA samples submitting to the laboratory.

The DNA Identification Laboratory offers several additional resources, including a flow-chart of the human identification process,10 and the free disbursement of DNA sample collection kits for family reference samples and for collecting human remains.11 The laboratory also specializes in diagnostic pathogen testing programs, specifically on vector-borne tick diseases12 , which have future potential for applicability to DNA analysis programs using microbial forensic testing.

The Center for Human Identification was recently filmed for a PBS television show, scheduled to air in the season starting April 8, 2007.13 The segment featuring the laboratory is entitled "Skeletons in the Closet" as part of the series "State of Tomorrow," a locally-broadcast program offered by PBS.14 In the program, the laboratory analysts describe the current research of the two components of the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification: the DNA Identity Lab and the Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology and Human Identification.


Similar state laboratories and programs for DNA identification follow this same model of the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. Two state programs – Florida and New York – are highlighted below, although several more states continue to implement initiatives to increase forensic identification processes.

One human identification initiative was implemented in the state of Florida by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). This program, Florida's Unidentified Deceased Initiative,15 hosts a website that includes links to the following resources: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Crime Laboratory and Florida Highway Patrol contacts, a letter to District Medical Examiners, strategies and available resources for use in solving unidentified deceased person cases, the FDLE Unknown Deceased Fingerprint Identification Request Form, the FBI National Missing Person DNA Database Submission Guidelines, a survey on unidentified persons casework for medical examiners, as well as lists of forensic odontologists in the Florida Medical Examiner System, forensic artists for the state of Florida who can provide forensic composites and skull reconstruction, and forensic anthropologists and physical anthropologists currently being used by Florida District Medical Examiners.

Collaborative identification efforts in the state of Florida also include the Florida Unidentified Decedents Database.16 This site provides a searchable database for the family and friends of missing persons. The online database provides all collected information, pictures, and descriptions of people found dead in the state of Florida.

Similar to the programs in Florida, the state of New York has implemented programs to identify missing persons. The state recently published a Missing Person Data Collection Guide.17 The guide provides resources for collecting and analyzing evidence related to missing persons. New York also hosts a Missing and Exploited Children Clearinghouse.18 Although the website resource is primarily for the identification of children, the site links to several helpful law enforcement tools for solving missing persons cases, such as training, guidelines, technology, and criminal records.

Lastly, a model state policy for implementing missing person identification programs was published by the National Institute of Justice in 2005.19 Several states – Texas, California, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico – have written laws implementing identification programs, while numerous other states – Alabama, Arizona, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, Washington – were inspired by the model policy to draft bills proposing procedures for solving human identification cases.


On a wider scale, several federal programs have implemented procedures, guidelines, law enforcement tools, and resources for solving missing persons cases. A few main programs are summarized below, including CODIS, NDIS, NCMA, NCIC, and IAFIS.

The Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a program of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), serves as an online law enforcement tool, enabling laboratories across the country to exchange and compare DNA profiles.20 Under CODIS, the National DNA Index System (NDIS) provides a searchable resource to link crime scenes with offenders.21 This online tool was created as a combination of two separate national databases – a forensic index of crime scene biological evidence and an offender index – in an effort to coordinate nationwide identification of DNA evidence.

Another federal program designed to aid in the identification of missing persons is the website "Using DNA and Other Resources To Identify Missing Persons"22 offered by The President’s DNA Initiative. The President’s DNA Initiative, a federal program created from the Justice for All Act of 200423 , ensures proper collection, prompt access to testing, and accurate laboratory analysis of DNA evidence24. Through the human identification resources of the President’s DNA Initiative, the program has offered two training conferences on missing persons plus a strategy meeting on identifying the missing25, links to DNA sample analysis services26, and descriptions of research and development projects involving missing person identification27.

Similarly, the National Center for Missing Adults (NCMA)28, a program that coordinates efforts with the Office of Justice Programs of the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance, sponsors a database of collaborative resources for identifying missing adults. This program enables coordination across the country between law enforcement agencies by facilitating the sharing of resources and information on missing persons.

Additionally, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC)29 hosts a Missing Person File that compiles information on yearly statistics and case records of missing persons. The FBI issues reports on annual missing person statistics as reported under the NCIC program30.

Finally, the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS)31 hosted by the FBI, provides an online electronic database of fingerprint evidence and services. The search functions of this site allow law enforcement agencies to submit and compare evidence leading to identification by fingerprint analysis.

The federal human identification resources described above, while not exhaustive, can be supplemented further by exploring the comprehensive list of cold case resources in the Cold Case Toolkit, detailed in the section below.


The latest advances in technology used to solve cold cases can be found through a newly-compiled toolkit of cold case resources created by the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law (NCSTL) at Stetson University of Law32. The Cold Case Toolkit33, an interactive component of the NCSTL website, includes a series of links to cold case resources in the following categories: NIJ Resources, Law Enforcement Technology Used in Investigating Cold Cases, Police Department Websites that Solicit Information from Visitors About Cold Cases, Cold Case Forms, Cold Case Investigation Training Opportunities, Psychological and Medical Resources for Families, Regional Cold Case Web Resources, General Cold Case Web Resources, and a Cold Case Bibliography. Each of the resources listed in the Cold Case Toolkit includes a direct website link to the resource, as well as a short description of the content of the resource and its applicability to solving cold cases.

With new advances in DNA research, increasing expertise in forensic laboratories, the capacity for instantaneous international information sharing, and continual discoveries in law enforcement technology, the number of identification programs on state and national levels is rising steadily. With any hope, the emergence of new forensic technologies will soon surpass the growing rate of unsolved identity cases.


1 Nancy Ritter, Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains: The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster, NIJ Journal No. 256, January 2007, available at
2 DNA Identification Laboratory, University of North Texas Health Science Center, available at
3 Nancy Ritter, Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains: The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster, NIJ Journal No. 256, January 2007, available at (Statistics current as of July 2006)
4 DNA Identity Testing, DNA Identification Laboratory,
5 Paternity Testing, DNA Identification Laboratory,
6 Forensic Testing, DNA Identification Laboratory,
7 The Genographic Project, funded by the National Geographic Society, IBM, the Waitt Family Foundation, available at
8 Texas Missing Persons DNA Database, available at
9 FBI, Combined DNA Index System, available at
10 How Missing Person Identification is Made, DNA Identification Laboratory, available at
11 Forensic Testing, DNA Identification Laboratory,
12 Tick-borne Research Laboratory, DNA Identification Laboratory,
13 Our DNA Experts Will Be Featured in a New PBS Show, 'Skeletons in the Closet', Campus Connection, University of North Texas Health Science Center, February 16, 2007, available at
14 Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), available at
15 Florida's Unidentified Deceased Initiative, available at
16 Florida Unidentified Decedents Database, available at
17 Missing Person Data Collection Guide, New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, March 2007, available at
18 Missing and Exploited Children Clearinghouse, New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, available at
19 Model State Missing Persons Statute, National Institute of Justice, 2005, available at
20Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), available at
21 National DNA Index System (NDIS), available at
22 Using DNA and Other Resources To Identify Missing Persons, The President’s DNA Initiative, available at
23 Justice for All Act of 2004, H.R.5107, available at
24 The President’s DNA Initiative, available at
25 Training and Assistance on Using DNA To Identify Missing Persons, The President’s DNA Initiative, available at
26 Analysis of Remains and Biological Samples, The President’s DNA Initiative, available at
27 Using DNA To Identify Missing Persons: Research and Development, The President’s DNA Initiative, available at
28 National Center for Missing Adults (NCMA), available at
29National Crime Information Center (NCIC), available at
30 National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Missing Person File, available at
31 Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), available at
32 National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law (NCSTL) at Stetson University of Law, available at
33 Cold Case Toolkit, NCSTL, available at