Human Identification Services
All medico-legal death investigations must include legal identification of the deceased. This involves assessment of the condition of the body and a selection of the most appropriate identification method. A range of scientific tests may be required to legally identify someone in order to produce a final identification report for the Coroner.
Our Human Identification Services Department has four core disciplines:
Our practitioners have extensive experience both domestically including the disaster victim identification process following the Victorian Bushfires of February 2009, and internationally including the investigation of mass graves in East Timor, and the identification of victims of the terrorist bombing of October 2002 in Bali, the Thailand tsunami and the recovery of the victims from the downing of flight MH17.
Forensic odontology can be defined as the application of “tooth science” to the legal system, or in other words, the examination and evaluation of dental evidence that is then presented in court. Most people associate forensic dentistry with identification however other aspects of the discipline are just as important, including:
cranio-facial trauma analysis including the degree of force required to produce injuries
age estimation – for both living and deceased individuals
dental manifestations of child abuse
bite mark analysis
human identification (including mass fatality victim identification).
dental malpractice/insurance fraud investigations
superimposition including photographic or digital methods.
Odontologists assist in the identification of deceased persons who are unable to be visually identified for a variety of reasons. The effects of fire, putrefaction, fragmentation, and/or a combination of the above, preclude the possibility of identification by viewing of the remains, and so a more rational scientific approach is required in order to fulfil this vital function.
Forensic odontology experts work across the medico-legal spectrum and work closely with forensic pathologists, clinical forensic medical practitioners, forensic anthropologists, and forensic scientists. Forensic odontology practitioners require formal qualifications and ongoing training in order to satisfy the evidence based needs of the courts and the justice system.
Forensic anthropology is the examination and analysis of differentially preserved human remains. Anthropologists determine information about an individual’s ancestry, sex, age at death, stature, and the circumstances and manner of their death. This information assists police in the initial stages of missing person investigations. In addition, the forensic anthropologist advises on the most suitable sample for DNA analysis.
Our anthropologists may attend a scene to assist in the search for, and recovery of, surface and buried human remains and associated evidence. They work with police to locate and investigate anomalies to confirm or deny the presence of human remains. In cases where human remains are located, the forensic anthropologist plays an important role in the professional recovery of the remains ensuring all skeletal elements and associated evidence is collected.
Initial assessments made by the forensic anthropologists include whether the material is osseous (bone) or non-osseous, and in cases where the remains are skeletal, whether the skeletal remains are of human or non-human origin. Remains are then examined to determine evidence of trauma and whether a determination can be made as to the timing and mechanism of trauma. Interpretation of trauma may have relevance to the understanding the circumstances around the death.
Forensic entomology is the study of insects as applied to legal problems, which are usually either civil or medico-legal. Entomology can be used to estimate the minimum time since death using insect activity on bodies as a timeline. This may be important in cases involving murder, suicide, accident, or suspected neglect of persons in care.
Entomology can help to determine whether bodies have been moved after death as some insects have very restricted geographic ranges, and can act as indicators if they are found on a body that has been transported outside their natural geographical range.
An entomologist may also help to reconstruct events that occurred after death by examining insect infestation patterns on bodies. For example, opinions may be provided on whether a body was buried soon after death, located indoors since death or exposed to the elements.
Forensic entomology may assist with the assessment of parasite infestations in abuse and neglect cases. Important factors include the species of the parasite, the size of the infestation and the appropriateness of any treatment given to the infested person. It can also help to identify venomous invertebrates implicated in human deaths.
Forensic Molecular Biology
Identification using nuclear or mitochondrial DNA is a relatively rapid method of identification. In death investigation these tests may be more problematic than in the living as DNA must be recovered from unusual body sites, particularly when there has been loss or damage to body tissues.
Toe nails have largely replaced traditional tissues as DNA samples as they are more stable in the setting of decomposition and are easy to store and transport. In the case of individuals who are extensively burnt, swabs of the lining of the bladder can be used as DNA samples. As with fingerprints, where a person’s DNA has not been previously collected and recorded on a database it may be possible to take samples from objects that they have handled in the past. Additionally we can obtain blood samples from biological siblings or parents, or from other blood or tissue samples that have been collected in the past.