Ever wonder how a dentist identifies a missing person? Ask Local dentist, Dr Cohrn, forensic expert.

Fires, vehicular accidents, floods, hurricanes, murders and more all can end up with persons unidentifiable visually. This is problematic for family members, law enforcement and other concerned persons. So how do forensic scientists go about identifying the unknowns? There are only three scientific and legally accepted methods of identification– DNA, fingerprints and dental. DNA and fingerprints are subject to environmental degradation. Teeth on the other hand are extremely durable and can survive extreme conditions.

What is the process? The medical examiner is ultimately responsible for signing off on the ID. They have investigators and consultants (Dentists, Anthropologist, etc.) to assist. There has to be a starting point with the ID and that is the collection of physical evidence– clothing, tattoos, personal items like rings, wallet, etc.. Of course, fingerprints will be taken if possible and the Forensic Odontologist will be called in to do an examination. If there is no idea of who the individual is the Anthropologist will collect physical data such as
sex, height, ethnicity, and so forth. That information along with the dental data will be submitted to a national unknown persons database for comparison to those with similar attributes. If, however, the investigator has a lead as to the possible ID, he/she collects any dental records from the family . Now the Forensic Dentist can compare the antemortem (before death) data to the postmortem (after death) dental records to see if there is a match. The question often comes up– what if there are no teeth to compare? Well, there are a number of other anatomical structures that can be used– the jawbone itself, the shape of the sinuses, various artifacts present in the oral cavity and so forth. Where there are teeth, especially with fillings the ID process is considerably more straight forward. No two fillings can be exactly the same so sometimes a single tooth can be adequate for identification.

Other responsibilities of a Forensic Odontologist include disaster assistance , bitemark analysis (including animals), age estimation, assisting law enforcement and legal agencies, both civil and criminal) and standard of care issues.

The dentist will present the findings to the medical examiner who makes the final determination if the evidence is sufficient for an ID. The family will be notified and the loved one is reunited with the family. Of course, this process can be much more complicated than this simplistic overview which is what makes my job challenging. Other responsibilities of a Forensic Odontologist include disaster , bitemark analysis (including animal), age estimation, assisting law enforcement and legal agencies, both civil and criminal and standard of care issues

Dr. Cohrn is one of a select few Board Certified (ABFO) Forensic Odontologists in Florida. In addition, he has lectured a throughout the country ond overseas as well as contributing author in a textbook and several professional journals.


POSTED: 10.26.2016

At the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Dr. Ken Cohrn works with Dr.’s Denise Murman, KC,, forensic odontologists and Dr. Jyothi Anshuman from MIT. They are conducting research on digital scanning and evaluation of possible bite marks on Sue, the world-famous T-Rex.

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