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Forensic Victim Identification

by digross, January 1, 1970

A skeleton in the morgue in Orahovac/Rahovec, Kosovo, being examined for a war crimes case, shows signs of torture and murder: a bullet through the head, a shattered leg, broken ribs, and shrapnel from a hand-grenade.

Forensic victim identification is an entire theme, not a scene.


Shooting Script

* Expert staff
* Local staff
* Resources (technical, human, protection, etc.)
* Locations
* Sites

Interviewing Script

* Security situation
* Progress
* Techniques used
* Purpose of the project
* Duration of the project
* Body count
* Possibility of success?

Forensic Victim Identification

Forensic Victim Identification – ”The use of valid and reliable scientific methods and techniques to establish the identity of human remains in accordance with applicable legal standards.”

”A close look at conflict and post-conflict situations around the world – the troubled peace in Cyprus or in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the strained relations between Iran and Iraq or Ethiopia and Eritrea, the near-impossible task of resolving the conflict over the Western Sahara, the relentless demands for truth and justice in Chile and Peru, the ongoing violence in Indonesia and the marathon conflict in Sri Lanka – reveals that among other causes, pain and anger on the part of the families of missing people and their traumatized communities is a prime factor in perpetuating hostilities.”
”Antonella Notari for the International Committee of the Red Cross, FORUM, April 2002”

Hundreds of men and women swarmed like ants to rummage between the newly dug mounds and troughs. The small hill and the land below, part of the al-Mahawil military base was an officially protected archeological site, the dusty, sandy soil filled with shards of old Mesopotamia. It was also, since 1992, the site of the murder and burial of over ten thousand men, women and children rounded after the failed Shi’ite uprisings in Iraq.

Eleven years later, after the defeat of Saddam’s regime, the Iraqis began to dig. Where witnesses or survivors directed, ordinary civilians swarmed with shovels and excavators, ripping open the ground in a frenzy of remembrance. They pulled the bones of the dead from the fresh-cut soil with bare hands, filling hundreds of plastic bags which were scatter at random over the site.

Men and women moved between the bags of clothing and bones, fingering the rotted, tattered clothing, holding up plastic sandels and tennis shoes to the light, even ripping apart what remained of illegible ID books to find a hidden clues.

Across the country, similar sites hold more between 100,000 and 250,000 more victims of the regime. Most remained hidden in the middle Iraq’s deserts, known only to the perpetrators and nomads, but where they could Iraqi civilians looked for their missing people.

The American military, which had no comprehensive plan beyond avoiding confrontations with civilians, and they kept out of their way for the most part, giving the people a taste of freedom many had never known.

“It’s their country,” said U.S. Marine Captain David Romley. “Keep in mind that we see this as an Iraqi process because we think that is appropriate. We want to respect the wishes of the Iraqi victims and their families.” Later, Marine Lt. Col. Rick Long quietly commented, “If we stop this, there will be a riot.” For an under-manned military operation, unable or unwilling to stop the mass looting in Baghdad, interfering with the right of the Iraqis to recover their dead was foolish, dangerous, and wrong. Despite angry protests by Human Rights Watch behind the scenes and before BBC cameras, the U.S. military held that common sense overruled experts, and the Iraqis were allowed to continue their work until passions cooled.

Some of the identifications were certainly correct. Many were certainly not; without doubt, there are families with the wrong remains…meaning there are families who will never receive a body. The story going around was that one family took some remains based on a cigarette package. It was the same the missing man smoked, and that was enough.

At the al-Mahawil site, before media pressure (contrived by Human Rights Watch) convinced the American military to close the site, around 2,600 sets of remains were found. Of those, 1,200 bags of bones and clothing were taken home. Another 1,400 remained unclaimed, while bones and rags lay scattered about the site, irreparably commingled in the piles of dirt, and plastic jugs of lost ID books now sit on shelves in a room in town where lost artifacts are stored.

Similar scenes repeat across the world as passion and common sense reject the idea there is a method and a science to recovering the dead. An understanding of the ideal processes of identification, and the consequences of an badly executed identification, allow journalists and other first-responders to correctly assess such scenes, to report them accurately and even help avert future tragedies.

Since the early 1980s teams of scientists and archeologists have been working to address the problem of missing people from war and conflict by establishing forensic victim identification teams. The first was the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, created to identify victims of Argentina’s “Dirty War.” Since then, teams have been assembled in over fifty countries around the world to work on conflicts old and new, including Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Guatemala, East Timor, and even Spain.

Forensic victim identification (FVI) is the use of valid and reliable scientific methods and techniques to establish the identity of human remains in accordance with applicable legal standards. There is no established name that covers all the forms these investigations take, but the key word is “forensic,” the application of science to questions of law. Basically, FVI seeks to name the dead using science.

In contrast to FVI, many identifications are based on circumstantial evidence, such as clothing, documents, and jewelry. However, anything not part of the body is really only a clue toward identity. The assumption is that such artifacts belong with a body, yet killers have been known to force their victims to change clothing or swap ID cards. Items have mistakenly been linked to remains. The idea of FVI, which is based on identifying the human remains themselves, is to avoid the confusion, frustration, and misinformation leading from wrong identifications.

People who work in this field often feel a moral imperative in their work, especially when working with victims of human rights abuses: naming the dead and establishing how they died is a way to restore the humanity of the victims. The nature of mass murder is to completely objectify people in the most extreme sense; restoring a name gives them back their past, their lives, and publicly and historically affirms their humanity.

Nor FVI projects are simply moral veneer. The results have direct impact on the lives of survivors. Legal identification provides proof of death. A death certificate allows widows to inherit property, to collect pensions, to remarry. Families can receive social support. Next-of-kin can be notified, remains returned to them, and funeral rites can be performed. Psychologically, the last has proven of great importance, all around the world.

But there are costs to the scientific approach, too.

There is the frustration at what families see as the failure of such projects to deliver results. To a great extent, this is due to ignorance of how such projects work and the difficulties of performing an accurate identification. Popular TV shows about forensics, such as “CSI”, are seen around the world, while DNA matching is touted in the press; as a result, many people now believe that victim identifications are quick, cheap, and easy. There is a belief that all, even most, remains can be identified. Unfortunately, this is not true, and FVI is slow, expensive, and difficult. When the results don’t appear, the families can become angry.

Very little about the how investigators work is known outside the community of victim identification experts. As a result, instead of moving toward a reduction in post-conflict tensions — providing a salve for the suffering — victim identification projects may become yet another mysterious, frustrating experience for an already pained and angered populace.

There are different levels of identification, from the spurious to the scientifically rigorous. Nor is it clear that European/American legal systems are the only measure of what is the right level of identification. Different cultures, contexts, experts, and legal systems all determine what constitutes an identification.

For desperate families, a rumor and a piece of clothing may be enough to claim a body. Sometimes a visual identification by a non-family witness is sufficient, or a good match with a family photo of a tattoo. More scientific standards include matches with dental or surgical records or DNA matching. Fingerprints are still considered good matches, although there are questions about the examiners skills and the statistical support.

Is the DNA the “gold-standard”? When well done, and when the statistics back it up, DNA is now considered the best standard for a positive match. However, medical x-rays are sometimes superior, especially when samples may be corrupted or the quality of the matching is questionable. After all, not all DNA labs are the same, and extracting DNA from difficult samples is almost an art.

Questioning the necessity for the highest level of identification is not about being “politically correct” nor over-sensitive to cultural diversity. The real issue is determining who the clients of a given FVI project are and what level of identification best suits their needs. Unfortunately, there are at least seven clients to be satisfied: science, the dead, the families, politicians, funders, the international community, history.

Science has its own demands for consistency. It is in the nature of forensic experts, who are scientists, to meet those demands by maximizing certainty. For a scientist, anything less than the highest level of identification would simply not be science.

The dead, in the eyes of the forensic experts, are also clients. Many investigators speak of restoring their dignity, of giving them a voice. There is neither law nor custom that dictates the level of identification required to honor the dead, but nor is it clear that only the highest scientific standards would apply.

The victims’ families typically want their relatives remains returned to them. As well, they may seek justice for killings (or in the case of disaster, the neglect) that caused the deaths. That justice might be retribution, exposure of the perpetrators, or compensation. Many families seek only their own, personal certainly that they have received the right body. In some cases, this has meant rejecting lower levels of identification despite obvious benefits; in other cases, families have taken skeletons directly from grave sites based on the cut of the pants and the brand of cigarette in a shirt pocket.

Politicians main concerns are the living, the state, and their own powers. They must make choices between funding schools, hospitals, development, the military, and what many see as memorial activities of little social use. Even the understanding that there are social benefits for the families must be balanced against society’s other needs and demands, and high levels of identification are expensive. Moreover, high-quality FVI projects require time, and they keep the public awareness of the past alive. Sometimes, politicians would prefer the past were a bit quieter, if not forgotten.

The INGOs and IGOs which fund FVI projects answer to their own supporters. In some cases, those supporters want the fanciest, most sophisticated, most advanced project their money can buy. This means they want the highest levels of identification possible, often without regard to realities on the ground or the trade-offs made with other goals. For example, they might support the use of high-tech imaging technology while disregarding the training of local doctors in physical anthropology. One might whether demanding highest levels of identification but not provide the resources to follow-through indicates a hidden acceptance of lower levels.

The international community includes INGOs, IGOs, the UN, and international legal bodies.

There are two arguments to be made that the highest level of identification is always called for. First, when a body is wrongly returned, there is always a second family who will never receive the right body. Misidentifications are not victimless errors. Second, if such a mistake is made, all identifications will be called into question and the authority of the project undermined.

Why is FVI so hard? Consider DNA matching, usually seen as magic that can name anyone. The truth is that extracting samples from human remains is slow and difficult — sometimes impossible — and getting DNA from families takes time and money. DNA matches bones to families, but that’s only part of the story. Properly exhuming a body requires a lot of work. Remains are hard to find, money and resources are scarce. The bones are often commingled in mass graves. Recording and preserving the contextual evidence at the site — how the bodies lay and what was around them — means carefully digging with trowels and picks while sifting the soil for keys, jewelry, and bullets. A single assembled and examined skeleton is the result of days, or weeks, of work.

The complexity compounds. In practice, scientific and legal standards vary from country to country. Among international experts, there is little debate over the validity of the techniques they rely on. The same cannot be said for local police forces and legal systems which often have no scientific tradition of evidence collection. If local police assert an identification there is little that outside forensic experts can do. ***(so what)

In theory FVI is only about establishing identity. However, most experts would add the goals of returning victims’ remains to their families and establishing the medical manner and cause of death, and this is where the political problems start.

Human remains have great value not only to their relatives, but to those who might profit from controlling them, politically or economically. Human remains (like living people) are a resource, a commodity. So, when investigators seek to return the remains to their families, they may run into opposition from those who control access to the remains. Those in power may seek to trade the remains for money, diplomatic concessions, political rights for their own people, and so on. The problem is that the FVI team finds itself in the midst of a political struggle, and when it tries to push its own agenda, it ends up taking sides.

The second additional goal, called a death examination, can be even more explosive. Even though the findings are in theory about a particular body, it is naïve to assert their meaning stops there. For example, declaring cause of death to be from a close-range gunshot wound to the back of the head with a military-style bullet has ominous implications for any military or paramilitary force that might have been controlling the area of death at the time and has been implicated in extra-judicial executions.

So, while an forensic identification project is not necessarily a forensic criminal investigation, in practice it is difficult to separate the two.

The Process of FVI

FVI which deals with the dead is grouped into four tasks. One finds the bodies, recovers them, examines them, analyses the data, then gives them away or stores them. These are roughly the stages of FVI, although the process is actually far more complicated. For example, every project begins with a war, a disaster, an epidemic, or a massacre, and the nature of that process will determine much of which follows. Also, before any work can begin, there is an initial stage of getting permission to begin work in the host country, a process that can last for years.

The steps in exhumation are inter alia obtaining legal permission, depending on local jurisdiction; informing interested parties, including relatives where possible; organizing the exhumation team; identifying the site; ensuring that protective health measures are put in place; manual or mechanical excavation; documentation, preliminary examination, removal, collection and transportation of the remains and other specimens and proper identification; and finally sealing of the site for any future investigation and historical purposes, bearing in mind local legislation and cultural sensitivities. The entire exercise must respect the wishes of the communities concerned, judicial proceedings and the demands of professionalism. [“Management, exhumation and identification of human remains: A viewpoint of the developing world,” Alex Kirasi Olumbe And Ahmed Kalebi Yakub, in IRRC, December 2002 Vol. 84 No 848]

Scientists are loath to simply things so much, but these broad categories are useful for understanding the main tasks involved.


The search for the missing is a detective story, and many of the investigators are policemen or work with the police in their home countries. There are a number of differences from an ordinary crime scene, including the great number of cases, the poor condition of the remains, primitive working conditions, and personal security risks. Above all, working abroad means the investigators work at the whim of local powers, be they government officials or local villagers. There are many actors in the search, including the perpetrators, the families, politicians, militaries, investigators, organizations of all kinds, journalists, unskilled volunteers, and nosy onlookers, all of whom have some form influence on the investigations.


This stage is the recovery of the body. The body could be anywhere: in a field, in a mass grave, a well or lake, a plastic bag in a morgue.

This task is made more difficult by the reality of what you find. There are bodies with clothes and other identifying evidence; bodies with either the wrong clothes or no clothes at all; bags of bones, of single bodies or many; pieces of bodies, alone or thrown in with others; bodies whose burier can tell where they were found and what they looked like; anonymous sets of bones, either in the ground or found scattered about; bodies collected by the ICTY, often badly labeled; bodies collected by the MPU exhumation team; bodies burned by KFOR or following their instruction; bodies delivered in bags to the police.

Mostly, it’s incorrect to speak of “bodies,” as though one could see something that still looks like a human being. Usually, the body bags, coffins, and ragged blankets hold piles of bone and clothing and nothing more. The set of bones may not be complete. In the graveyard of the unidentified near Suva Reka, the ICTY placed plastic bags and cardboard boxes in the ground. One box (soggy and torn) was still clearly marked, “unassociated body parts,” and it contained Ziploc baggies of fingers and teeth, one skull, and various appendages.

An important term is “context.” As much as possible of the context in which the remains were found must be examined, recorded, cataloged, and analyzed. This could include the location of the remains, the nature of the soil, clothing (or lack thereof), chemicals such as gasoline or acid, insect and plant life, documents, even artifacts not related to the victim that might be clues to how they arrived where they were found.

It’s important to capture as much context as possible, and one of the most common and most grave mistakes of amateur exhumations is that they destroy context.

Amateur exhumations also tend to mix remains and lose pieces. This becomes a problem because examiners must try to reassemble the bodies, a very difficult task, and because lost parts may be clues to identity. For example, rings and tribal tattoos are often on hands and feet.

Culturally, lost parts may be a problem. Both Islam and Judaism demand (in theory, at least) that all parts of the body be recovered.


Examination is more autopsy. The examination of the human remains by medical experts is only a part of the overall examination of the evidence around a set of remains. As well, this stage of work includes DNA sampling and processing, the examination of personal artifacts (clothing, jewelry, etc.).

As well, one could include the general collection of information about the missing. In order to identify someone, investigators must have antemortem (before death) details to match with postmortem (after death) information. One part of the examination is the collection of postmortem details, the other part is the collection of antemortem information.

The antemortem information search is very broad. It could include interviews with families, lists of names from the Red Cross, collections of hair taken from brushes, or DNA samples from the families. There is a huge amount of information to be collected from a huge number of people.

However, it’s important to understand that collecting antemortem data, especially DNA sampling, requires a enormous amount of traditional leg-work, and money.

In Kosovo, a DNA sample from a single family could easily take a 3-person team an entire day.


The identification stage attempts to match the post-mortem (after death) information with ante-mortem (before death) information discovered in the examination stage.

This stage is when all the data is put together to give a name to the remains. Identification includes fingerprint matching, matching of tattoos, scars, physical trauma, dental and surgical x-rays and records, DNA matching, and (unreliably) visual facial identification.

There has been an unrealistic rise in expectations for identification. DNA matching will help greatly as matching techniques improve and costs come down. When conditions allow for DNA analysis, thousands of bodies can be identified accurately. The public often believes that DNA sampling is all that is needed, but the truth is that often it is impossible. DNA sampling requires samples be taken, that the reference population be statistically known, and that samples can be extracted. None of these are trivial requirements. Proper exhumation is still required for each body, assembly and protection of the remains, as well as careful extraction of the DNA samples from the remains. Finally, traditional archeological skills are still critical for the proper exhumation of the bodies and for the collection of evidence regarding the manner of death. DNA is not a perfect solution to solve identification problems.

Of course, not all remains can be identified.

Sometimes, people are named based only on artifacts: clothing, keys, jewelry. By international scientific standards, these are not proper forensic identifications.


Something must be done with the remains after analysis. There are three common solutions. Identified remains are given to the families of the victims. Unidentified remains are stored in the hope that future antemortem data will give a match. Unidentified remains are buried, usually in a memorial or mass grave, with no intention of identifying them.

In general, identified remains are returned to their families, although there are exceptions for political reasons. Socially, this is the best solution for families.

Unidentified remains may be stored in special facilities, such as caves, refrigerated containers, or even reburied in marked graves for future recovery. Reburial is cheap and practical solution, if done right, since soil can preserve remains very well. Memorial mass graves are also a practical solution, if the remains are stored in containers that keep them separate and their locations carefully and correctly recorded.

Memorial mass grave sites are sometimes the only practical solution for large-scale deaths in poor countries. Politicians may argue that attempting to identify the dead will only lead to social divisions since many will not successfully identified, that the costs are too high, that the money could better spent elsewhere, and that lengthy, on-going identification projects are constant reminders of a divisive past that society should put behind it.

Goals of FVI

1. Cause of Death: determine the medical cause and manner of death
2. Identity: identify remains for return to the family

FVI can be part of a Forensic Death Investigation, which is a form of a criminal investigation. The goals of a death investigation include:
3. Circumstances of Death: determine the circumstances in which the person died in order to hold perpetrators accountable.
4. document physical evidence relating to the cause, manner, and circumstances surrounding death and identity of the dead, thereby creating a historical record.


* Project director/Field director, Investigators: discovery, interviewing
* Forensic Archeologists: exhumation, mapping, etc.
* Physical Anthropologists: human bones
* Pathologists: Medical doctors with the authority to declare cause of death
* Autopsy assistants
* Crime Scene technicians
* Exhumation team
* Security
* Interpreters
* Public/Press Relations/Family liason
* Management (security, logistics, personnel)
* Computer support/Database support/Data entry
* Photography, X-ray tech
* Laboratory Management
* Office manager: paperwork, files
* Psychological support for the team


Possible Contributers

Bill Haglund, Stefan Schmitt, Sue Black, Michael “Sonny” Trimble, Clea Koff, Gilles Peress, Eric Stover


PHR, ICRC, IC-MP. Experts include Bill Haglund, Stefan Schmidt, Sue Black, Michael “Sonny” Trimble, Clea Koff, Gilles Peress, Eric Stover, etc.
Argentina, Guatemala, Iraq, and 50+ countries around the world


(see ICRC)


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