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Skull-Photo Superimposition and Border Deaths: Identification Through Exclusion and the Failure to Exclude

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We report on the application of video skull-photo superimposition as an identification method in a case from Ajo, Arizona in which five individuals died after crossing into southern Arizona from Mexico. Initial analyses at the Pima County Forensic Science Center in Tucson, Arizona determined that the disarticulated skeletal remains represented two adult Hispanic males and three adult Hispanic females. Based on biological profiles, both the males and one of the females were tentatively identified and assigned names. The other two females were too similar in age and height, making skeletal separation and identification difficult. As a result, the Michigan State University Forensic Anthropology Laboratory assisted in the identification efforts by performing video skull-photo superimposition on the two unknown females. The skulls were compared to a photograph reported to be one of the missing females. By evaluating facial proportionality and by comparing a number of morphological features of the face and skulls, one skull was excluded as a possible match and one skull was not excluded as a match to the antemortem photo. Because this case was presumed to be a closed disaster, the exclusion of one skull and the failure to exclude the other represented circumstantial identifications.
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Keywords: border deaths; forensic anthropology; forensic science; identification; skull-photo superimposition

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Anthropology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824. 2: Forensic Science Master’s Program, School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824.

Publication date: January 1, 2008

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