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  • Medical Examiner’s Office recognized for efforts to identify unidentified decedents

    Jan 14, 2014 | Read More News
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    Fingerprint analysis remains one of the best tools to help identify unidentified decedents, but that can be difficult in the case of deaths in the desert where remains can mummify rapidly.none

    The use of aliases or false identification, the extreme temperatures and arid climate, as well as the remoteness of the area where remains may be found, all combine to make identification challenging.

    The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner has perfected the technique of rehydrating and softening hands in which the fingerprint pads have hardened and dehydrated to such a degree that fingerprints otherwise could not be taken.

    For its work in rehydrating hands using sodium hydroxide, the Office recently received a Best Affiliate Presentation Award at the annual meeting of the National Association of Medical Examiners in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The rehydration process is also detailed in a manuscript accepted for publication in the Academic Forensic Pathology Journal.

    Previous publications in the scientific literature describe techniques that were used in just one or two cases.  In Pima County, where the unique convergence of the environment and geography along the border results in a high number of mummified remains, the technique has been used in approximately 425 cases from 2001 – 2012.  From 2011 – 2012, 76 cases used this technique.  Positive fingerprint identifications were made in 34 of the 76 cases after successful rehydration.

    Medical examiners offices throughout the country have called seeking assistance in cases that would otherwise be stalled, said Chief Medical Examiner, Gregory Hess M.D. Hess co-authored the scientific paper with Gene Hernandez, the office’s medicolegal death investigator supervisor, who presented the paper and accepted the award at the Milwaukee meeting.

    “This is one tool we can use to increase the chance of identifying families’ loved ones,” Hess said.  “And while we unfortunately see more mummified remains than other communities; this technique is inexpensive and technically simple, allowing it to be used in other jurisdictions across the country when the need arises.”