Identifying the Victim

When it comes to identifying the deceased forensic science and forensic medicine are both crucial weapons in any law enforcement agency’s armoury.

Difficulty in Identification

Identifying the victim can sometimes not be as simple as looking at their face and matching them to a description given by a worried relative or loved one. Sometimes there are extraneous forces at work, which make identifying the victim a long and laborious task.

The main reasons for difficulty in identifying the victim are:

  • Massive head trauma
  • Submergence in water for long periods of time
  • Decapitation
  • Disfigurement

All of these are of course grisly in their own right and the task of identifying a victim can be made much trickier if any of these issues arise.

Ways of Identifying a Body

Normally dental work, blood tests and fingerprinting would go some way in making a positive identification of a corpse but there are other things to take into consideration.

Firstly are any of these methods applicable in this particular instance? Some people are fortunate enough never to have required any great amount of dental work. Others may not have ever had to have blood work carried out during hospital visits and therefore no records exist and in some extreme cases wounds inflicted to the corpse post mortem may make fingerprinting impossible. This is also very difficult if the victim has been involved in a fire or explosion.

Of course one of the first things a forensic scientist will look for in their quest to identify the deceased is what they are wearing. Does the deceased’s clothing match the description given to the police? If so this is a good place to start and items of clothing or footwear can – as much as the task is unpleasant and upsetting – be shown to the family of the deceased. Certain items of clothing and footwear are unique to individuals and can be identified easily. Items of jewellery are also used in an attempt to identify the victim as many items of jewellery can be personalised with engravings.

The forensic science officer will also collate the individual’s personal effects and look for forms of identity such as a driving licence, banker’s card or anything that may hold a name and address.

This is of course not to say that this method of identification is foolproof; it is not unheard of for misidentifications due to the victim of a crime wearing similar clothing to that of a missing person. But it is a good indicator from which DNA can be taken from the parents or siblings of the missing person for comparison.

Mitochondrial DNA – a strain of DNA that is present through the bloodlines of many families down many generations – can be used to identify the victim but this is normally only used when no other forms of identification; such as dental work, blood work and fingerprints are not available.

It is important to note that cases of misidentification are rare and that every effort is made on behalf of the authorities and the forensics team to make sure identification is as quick as possible and without adding any further anxiety to the family of the victim.

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