Death Investigations in the United States
Nationally renowned and award-winning mystery author Jan Burke came to speak to the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter recently about two subjects dear to her heart: missing and unidentified people and the lack of uniform standards and training in the medico/legal death investigation system in the United States. She reminded the crime fiction authors in the crowd that they have a platform to bring attention to subjects such as these.
In the United States, 600,000 adults and children go missing every year. The vast majority are found relatively quickly. However, over ten thousand people remain missing for more than a year. And sadly, around 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered every year. In an attempt to match the missing with the unknown dead, the Department of Justice and the National Institute for Justice created an online database called NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
However, only three states require reporting of unidentified remains to the NamUs database. In most states, individual counties make the rules regarding handling of unidentified remains. Consequently, a person who vanishes in one county may turn up dead, lacking identification, four counties away, and their family may never be notified. This creates what NamUs calls the Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster: a huge volume of unsolved cases regarding missing persons and unidentified dead bodies.
One example of this problem is the case of Lupita Cantu. Lupita disappeared from San Antonio, Texas, in Bexar County, in April 1990. That same year her body was found near Pearsall, Texas, and buried as a Jane Doe, because authorities couldn’t identify her. She wasn’t identified until 2011, when DNA analysis finally matched her with her family. Pearsall is only about 55 miles from San Antonio, in Frio County. Had the counties been required to report unidentified remains and missing persons to a central clearinghouse, Lupita might have been identified much sooner. This problem is even more extreme in places where it’s easy to cross state lines. Someone who disappeared from one state might never be linked to remains found two states away.
NamUs creates a central clearinghouse for missing persons and unidentified remains, allowing both families of the missing and law enforcement agencies to enter information into the database in hopes of matching the missing with the dead. NamUs also can provide law enforcement agencies in rural, low-population, or underfunded counties the forensic resources needed to identify the dead, including forensic odontology, fingerprint examination, forensic anthropology, and DNA analyses. Families of the missing can receive DNA collection kits so that their data may be compared with the DNA from unidentified remains.
The NamUs clearinghouse is necessary because of the lack of uniformity in the handling of deaths by the medico/legal system in the United States. Each state has different standards and rules that apply to the person whose job it is to declare whether a death is natural, accidental, or homicide. Some states have medical examiners. Some states have coroners. Some of these people are elected. Some are appointed. Some are required to have medical training. Some are required to be forensic pathologists. And some aren’t required to have any special training whatsoever. Within each state, whether a county uses a coroner or a medical examiner may vary by county and by population.
This patchwork quilt of laws means that there are over 2,300 different systems for dealing with death for the more than 3,100 counties (or parishes, or whatever the state has labeled the entities) in the United States. Multiple scientific studies have reviewed these systems, and all have consistently returned the same recommendations. The population would be better served by a more consistent set of rules and regulations across the United States. The current system creates great disparities in the administration of justice.
Jan Burke, photo by Helen C. Foster
For instance, in a county where a justice of the peace (J. P.) decides the nature of death, where the county has no medical examiner and must send bodies several counties away for autopsy, the county’s budget may determine if a death by unknown causes is ever reviewed. Consider this scenario. Suppose a fifty-year-old man is found dead in his bed at home. The house was locked and police can see no visible evidence of foul play. The police may ask the J. P. to find the death is suspicious, to have the body sent for autopsy in a neighboring county. However, the J. P. has the power to deny that request. The J. P. may say that since nothing looks suspicious, the police should assume it’s a natural death, close the case, and save the county the money they would have paid for the autopsy.
Crime fiction writers use death to build plots in novels all the time. Ms. Burke suggested that by mentioning NamUs as part of a fictional family’s search to find a missing loved one, authors can raise awareness in the general public about this resource available to real families who are missing a relative. She also requested that writers be accurate in their depiction of death investigations. Many people are under the misapprehension that all death is investigated like it is depicted on C. S. I. and other similar dramas on television. Those shows don’t remotely reflect the reality of death investigations in many parts of the country. As writers, we can do better. We can reflect reality.
N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Most recently, she has been writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017). Find her at nmcedeno.com or amazon.com/author/nmcedeno or on Facebook.