During a murder investigation, sometimes all that surfaces are human bones. Without proper identification to verify who the deceased person is, it’s up to forensic artists to re-create an image of what the person may have looked like while alive to help law enforcement identify the individual.

At the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), forensic imaging specialists are tasked with re-creating an image of what a child may have looked like based on skull and bone remains that surface during police investigations.

Since bones and in some cases a few articles of clothing are the only evidence that remain, the NCMEC then assists law enforcement investigations by using the bones and skulls as a template for re-creating the image of the deceased’s face. The hope is that by creating a 3-D picture of what the deceased may have looked like, someone will be able to recognize and identify the individual to authorities.

Joe Mullins, a forensic imaging specialist for NCMEC who teaches classes on facial reconstruction, performs this kind of computerized facial reconstruction based on skeletal remains. With the help of special 3-D imaging software, forensic artists factor in information from a skull’s forensic anthropology report, like ancestry and age range, to start recreating what Mullins considers an ambiguous picture of the victim’s face.

“Art and science have to work together to come up with the correct face based on what that skull is telling you,” Mullins said.

He said it’s crucial that forensic artists leave room for ambiguity because any image reconstructed based on skeletal remains is not going to be 100 percent accurate. What is important is creating the image based strictly on facts. And some features are more obvious indicators, like gapped teeth or a crooked nose, he explained.

When skeletal remains are broken or have pieces missing, it’s more challenging for forensic artists to recreate an accurate image. But no matter what, Mullins said forensic artists should have no artistic license and should only base the image only off the information they have.

Mullins said unlike television shows like CSI, images the forensic artists create from skeletal remains are just projections based on the bones themselves. The public should keep in mind that they are not exact images of the deceased individuals.

Cold Case Help for the New Hampshire State Police

Recently the New Hampshire State Police began working with the NCMEC on a murder investigation involving four female victims. According to local media, two victims were found 15 years prior to the latter two.

"How can four people just be killed, and it goes unnoticed by family and friends?" said Angela Williamson, leader of NCMEC’s five-person Unknown Victim Identification Team, in a statement. "They need their names. There must be some kind of justice.”

This particular investigation is still ongoing.

Building a Network

To speed up the facial reconstruction process, the NCMEC reaches out to hospitals to perform CT scans on the skulls and bones waiting to be identified. Mullins said after the CT scans are complete, images from the scan are sent to the NCMEC where they are opened up in the software so that the facial reconstruction process can begin in a digital environment.

Prior to using a computerized method, the NCMEC used to create 3-D facial reconstructions by applying clay directly to the skull to recreate the face. Mullins said utilizing the technology can help complete the imaging process as quickly as four days from the time the remains are scanned at the hospital.

Mullins said that so far, the hospitals the NCMEC has worked with have been very accommodating in completing the CT scans, and it’s more logical to send bones to a hospital near an investigation rather than shipping them directly to the NCMEC in Alexandria, Va. – something that could cause the bones to get broken or lost in the mail.

His hope is to build a bigger network of hospitals that will work with the NCMEC in the future.

“It’s like building a Rolodex of hospitals that can offer this service,” Mullins said.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.