Unique UNM Database of Deceased People Helps Improve Criminal Justice Outcomes

Aug 3, 2021

One of the first steps in pursuing justice in a homicide or missing person case is identifying the deceased person. A tool created by researchers at the University of New Mexico is making that process easier. The New Mexico Decedent Image Database includes 150 million images of whole-body CT scans. The database is the first of its kind in the nation. The scans help both forensic investigators and health care practitioners learn more about identifying unknown bodies, especially Indigenous people.  Dr. Heather Edgar is a forensic anthropologist at the Office of the Medical Investigator and the creator of the database.

DR. HEATHER EDGAR: The database includes over 15,000 individuals. And there's not another database like this that includes whole-body CT scans of that many individuals, especially ones that are so well documented. So because of that, there's been a lot of interest across the world. There has been research done on the effects of cancer drugs, improving automobile safety, on improving the fit of surgical appliances, things like hip replacements, or knee replacements. There's been research done on deaths from lung disease. There's currently over 500 researchers from around the world in 45 different countries that are using the database for research.

KUNM: And you mentioned in one of your interviews that this project can increase justice in missing persons cases. And the National Institute of Justice actually funded the database with a $700,000 grant. Can you expand on how this database relates to justice in missing persons cases?

EDGAR: Absolutely. So a lot of the things I just mentioned are related to health. But there are also many forensic applications. We're doing some research ourselves to improve identification for American Indians and Hispanic and Latino Americans. We are building a set of data of people who we know were Native American, and people who we know were Hispanic, Latino, whichever term they use for themselves here in New Mexico. And we are collecting data from their skeleton. So these are known individuals, right? In the future, there will be unknown individuals who are found here in New Mexico and Arizona, all over the country. And our intent is to build a set of data of known individuals that we can compare the unknown individual to. So we already have a lot of this data for European Americans, for African Americans, we have an okay set for Asian Americans. But the sample for especially Native Americans is really small. The first step to solving a crime is figuring out who the victim is, it's very difficult as you can imagine, to prosecute a crime if you don't know who the victim is. And so identifying that individual is an important step to bring justice to any crime.

KUNM: I'm thinking a lot about in Canada and the United States, the missing and murdered Indigenous women. Few bodies are found relative to the number of women that are missing. But with the bodies that are found, will we be able to help identify the perpetrator of the crimes? Or is that outside the scope?

EDGAR: What we think is going on is that Native Americans are currently being misidentified as not Native Americans. We think that's the problem. And so when you say there's few bodies being found, I think part of the reason is because they're being estimated to be European  American or Hispanic. And if we can do a better job, estimating them as Native American will have a better chance of matching them with a missing person report. We're working really hard to make sure that we do this work in a respectful manner that reflects the questions of the community. We have a small Native American advisory group, who's lending us a hand in that and we hope to do more community outreach as the project progresses.

KUNM: Dr. Heather Edgar, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. This is a fascinating project.

EDGAR: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it.