Background: Medical examiners and coroners occasionally encounter unidentified human bodies, which remain unidentified for extended periods. In such cases, when traditional methods of identification have failed or cannot be used, DNA profiling may be used. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a National Missing Person DNA database (NMPDD) laboratory to which samples may be submitted on such cases and from possible relatives or environments of unidentified decedents. This article describes the experience of the Fulton County Medical Examiner (FCME) in submitting samples to the NMPDD laboratory.
Methods: A database was established at the FCME to track the submission of samples from unidentified decedents to the NMPDD laboratory for DNA testing along with the results and turnaround times. In December 2004, the FCME inventoried all cases for which samples were available and began to submit them to the NMPDD laboratory for testing. DNA testing and isolation rates, sample type, and turnaround times were tabulated in October 2006 for samples submitted between December 16, 2004 and December 16, 2005. An overall summary of data was also prepared concerning the status of all samples submitted as of April 17, 2007.
Results: During the 1-year study period, samples from 77 unidentified decedents were submitted to the laboratory. As of October 2006 (22 months after submission of the first samples and 10 months after submission of the last samples), testing had been completed on 53% of the samples submitted, and 68% of those tested resulted in a mitochondrial DNA profile. Turnaround times ranged from 66 to 557 days, improved with time, and had a mean of 107 days for specimens submitted during the latter part of the study period. As of April 17, 2007, we had submitted samples involving 84 unidentified decedents. Seventy-five percent of the samples have now been tested. Data from the NMPDD laboratory have resulted in 4 identifications by comparison with putative relatives, 4 exclusions, and no cold hits through comparison NMPDD DNA profiles from missing persons. More extensive data are presented in the body of this article.
Conclusions: The NMPDD laboratory provides useful and free services to medical examiners, coroners, and law enforcement agencies that require DNA services regarding missing and unidentified persons. Turnaround times have improved. The success of the system in getting cold hits will be heavily dependent on law enforcement filing missing persons reports and submission of reference samples from putative relatives of the decedent. We recommend collecting specimens for DNA analysis early on in the postmortem investigation, submitting samples to the NMPDD laboratory or one of its participating laboratories when traditional methods for identification cannot be used or have failed, not burying bodies until a DNA profile has been obtained, and not cremating unidentified remains.