Friday, February 27, 2009

Forensics for closure in cold cases and justice served

FACES lab research associate Helen Mathews, left, and Director Mary Manhein hope to create a comprehensive database.

Another tool for families to resolve a mysterious family death and justice to close in on criminals.

"Forensics lab brings cold cases back to life"


Rick Jervis

February 26th, 2009


BATON ROUGE — The clay face perched on a lab shelf at Louisiana State University's Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services — FACES — looked familiar to the sheriff's deputy. It got him digging back into his old case files.

A few weeks later, the face — reconstructed from the remains of an unidentified 20-year-old slain man — was matched to a skull found 32 years ago on a sandbar in the Red River near Shreveport, La.

"It's amazing what they're doing in that lab," said Lt. Robert Davidson of the DeSoto (La.) Parish Sheriff's Office, who helped identify the remains. "Anything we find now that is not identified, we're sending it straight to them."

FACES is at the forefront of a recent national push to bring names to the thousands of unidentified remains sitting in coroners' closets and sheriffs' evidence rooms across the USA. In 2007, the Justice Department launched an online database [ ] that links coroners' offices and law enforcement agencies all over the country and allows the public to peruse clay and computer-enhanced renderings of unidentified persons.

States like Texas, California, Louisiana and Kentucky are bolstering their unidentified victims databases and sharing the information across the country, said Mary Manhein, FACES director and a forensic anthropologist.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates there are between 15,000 and 40,000 sets of unidentified remains in coroners' offices across the country. These cold cases often go unsolved for decades. Even with new technology, the cases are difficult; The FACES lab has identified four in the past two years.

But the forensic work is one of the few rays of hope to solve many cases.

"There is so much more effort going into it now as opposed to 10 years ago," said Todd Matthews of the Doe Network, a group of nationwide volunteers who help identify victims. "If nothing else, communication between agencies is so much better."

In 2006, Louisiana lawmakers passed a law mandating that law enforcement officers and coroners in each of the state's 64 parishes forward all unidentified remains to the FACES lab, Manhein said. The lab also got about $500,000 in additional funding, allowing Manhein to hire extra forensic anthropologists and an imaging expert.

Using skull measurements, the technicians could determine how wide a victim's nose was and how full the lips were, as well as the victim's race, gender and approximate age, Manhein said. Some things, such as eye color or hair length, can't be determined by the bones and are guessed at by the technicians. Eyes are always colored brown, since that color photographs best in the images, she said.

A clay face is created from the measurements, which is then photographed, scanned into a computer and enhanced with computer technology, Manhein said.

Some clay reproductions and pictures are spot-on matches. Davidson said he recognized the clay face in 2007 in the FACES lab right away as that of Victor Barajas, a Texas man who disappeared near Shreveport in 1976.

After making that match, Davidson gave the FACES lab an unidentified skull they'd had since 1985. A year later, through DNA matching and a missing persons report, the sheriff's office and anthropologists at FACES matched the skull to Ricky Maxie, a 23-year-old who had disappeared near Shreveport. His remains were delivered to his family.

"You can't imagine having your son or daughter missing and never finding their remains," Davidson said. "It's tremendous closure for the family."

For Manhein, one of the most emotionally difficult cases was that of Precious Doe, the name given to the decapitated remains of a young girl found in 2001 in a wooded area in Kansas City. A small skull was also found nearby.

Authorities recruited Manhein, who used the skull to determine the victim had been a black girl about 3 years old. The information helped police identify the victim as 3-year-old Erica Michelle Marie Green. Erica's stepfather later admitted to killing the girl while high on drugs and cutting off her head with hedge clippers. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

In 2007, Manhein flew to Kansas City for Erica's funeral. A small group of city officials, activists and Erica's former caretaker watched as the tiny coffin was lowered into the ground. "You feel relieved, happy, sad — a wide range of emotions," Manhein said. "These people don't have voices. When we identify them, we give them a voice."

Forensic texts online

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