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Art Students Help Pima Medical Examiner ID Migrants Who Die In The Arizona Desert

The completed facial approximation done by an art student at the New York Academy of Art and an identification card photo of the young Mexican man that was identified via a DNA comparison. (Photos courtesy of Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office)

MARK BRODIE: As the debate over the building of a border wall continues, thousands of migrants still make the journey across the border every year and every year hundreds of them die on the way. The Pima County Medical Examiner's Office in Tucson is tasked with the grim job of gathering and attempting to identify their remains. They use DNA technology and dental comparisons but many remain nameless; but now a collaborative project between the medical examiner's office and the New York Academy of Art is working to reconstruct their faces and The Show's Lauren Gilger joins us now with more on that. So, Lauren, how does this work?

LAUREN GILGER: Right. So, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office has like, at any time, 20 or 30 skulls of unidentified migrants in Tucson. Now, they wouldn't ship them to New York for the project, so they had eight of them scanned using a portable CT scanner and then they used a 3D printer to create replicas of the art students could work from. Dr. Bruce Anderson is a forensic anthropologist for the Pima County Office of the medical examiner. I got a hold of him to talk more about the project and how facial reproductions like these can be used to help give names to the nameless.

DR. BRUCE ANDERSON: Well they actually make what we used to call reproductions. Now the better term is approximation, using the term reproduction which was vogue in the 1970s and '80s when I was trained, gave a false impression especially the families that this is what that skull had to look like. So the people in the know, the forensic artists and the forensic anthropologists who utilize this technique renamed it a “facial approximation” which basically says it's the artist's, the forensic artist's best guess what the person might have looked like.

GILGER: How accurate are they?

ANDERSON: Well, sometimes they're very accurate, sometimes they're not even close. It is more in the realm of art than science. Although the artists are working with a forensic anthropologist who is there to tell them all the little nuances about the skull and how that might translate into differences in the face from wrinkles in the skin to chubby cheeks to a gaunt face to a square chin things like that.

GILGER: You can tell that from a skull?

ANDERSON: You can tell what the skull looked like, for sure. Whether or not that person was carrying an extra or 20 pounds or was very gaunt can be very difficult at times but it is art using as much science as they can but the final product is still in the realm of art.

GILGER: So, what's the goal of these sorts of projects? It's not close enough for you to be able to say this is who this person was it put on a missing person poster but can you use this information in any way?

ANDERSON: Absolutely, and there's really two reasons we do this. Number one, we don't know — at least we didn't know at the time who these men were and because we know on occasion these facial approximations turn out to be very similar to what the person looked like, it's worth doing. We had no clues as to who some of these men were so why not do this when the opportunity presented itself. The other reason is we have descriptions from anthropology exams and autopsies on each of these 12 men to include hair color and height, in some cases, body weight and tattoos and things like that and their bodies were in such poor condition there's no photograph we could show of the remains. So, we've learned and people long before me learned that if you publish a table of information a description if you will in a newspaper or online, more people will read it if there is an image associated with that. So, even if the image is not spot-on, it does tend to attract attention and a person and a reader then will take the time to read the description. And if we get the right person, a family member or friend who recognizes something about that description but doesn't quite see the face they still may call us. So for those two reasons it seems to be a good use of time and energy.

GILGER:  And looking at the broader picture here your office is always like you said dealing with some unidentified people whose remains you found in the desert who were you know not recognizable in any way. What are your hopes for programs like this? Do you think they could be expanded or should be?

ANDERSON: The reason we're willing to do this is we have a national database called NAMUS that each of these men they're in that database, and it's a database of both the missing, and the dead, and we don't know who the dead are so they could be American citizens or they could be foreign nationals. But now for those eight individuals, we now have an image that we can put in that database and that database is a world part of the web and anybody with computer access anywhere in the world who is looking for somebody who might have gone missing in Arizona now has another thing that they can look at and possibly evaluate.

GILGER: Anderson is a forensic anthropologist for the Pima County Office of the medical examiner who recently worked with the New York Academy of Art to create facial reproductions of eight migrants whose remains were found in the desert near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.