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Failing the Dead: Medical Examiners Don’t Use DNA to Track Missing Persons

Failing the Dead: Medical Examiners Don’t Use DNA to Track Missing Persons

Picture of William Heisel

It's a common complaint among police officers. In the wake of television shows like CSI, the public expects too much. They think that cops can lift a 30-year-old fingerprint off a Pabst Blue Ribbon bottle found at the bottom of a lake just by running it through the portable 30-PBR-H2O scanner the CSI team members carry in their Thermoses.

That type of technology just doesn't exist, police are fond of saying. And even some of the high-tech stuff that does exist is only accessible by the elite officers of the major metropolitan departments and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

But what about DNA testing?

It has been used by forensics experts since the mid-1980s to identify criminals and victims.

If you have the anonymous remains of a human being in your storage locker, you could have it tested for DNA to see if it matches someone connected to a crime or someone reported missing, right?

Not if you are the Tulsa police department. Or many others across the country.

On Sunday, The Tulsa World punched a big hole in the idea that the public expects too much. Instead, police departments are not availing themselves of DNA laboratories that offer their services for free.

"On any given day, as many as 100,000 missing-persons cases are active in the United States, according to a January 2007 National Institute of Justice report," wrote reporter Nicole Marshall. "More than 40,000 sets of human remains that cannot be identified through conventional means are held in medical examiners' evidence rooms across the country. But according to the report, only 15 percent have been entered into the FBI's national database."

Because of Miller's questioning, the Tulsa PD was forced to catalog its human remains and found that it had 125 unidentified people in its storage bins.

If you have a child or spouse or parent who has gone missing, wouldn't it gall you to think that they have been sitting in a metal box in the local PD basement for decades - without anyone bothering to send DNA samples to a lab that would test them for free?

To make that point, the Tulsa World put together a heart-breaking page of profiles of missing persons.

Forensic science typically is the cops and courts reporters' domain, but any good medical reporter knows how invaluable the coroner's office can be on the health beat. Pick up the phone and ask your medical examiner or coroner's office how many cases of unidentified remains they have.

Then ask them how many they have been entered into the FBI database or sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for its free testing program.

Then ask the medical examiner what he or she thinks of CSI.


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.

The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Symposium on Domestic Violence provides reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The next session will be offered virtually on Friday, March 31. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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