Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Re-hydrating Fingers at the Morgue

A lot of people believe that victims are identified by family or friends. We've all seen the movie scene where the mother, brother, or husband looks through the glass window and declares the identity of the deceased. In truth, we don't discount family identifications but we usually don't rely on them either, unless we have no other options.  In order to legally prove a person's identity we typically need more than just some person's word.  This is especially true when the condition of the body may preclude an accurate identification.
Shriveled fingers

Bodies in various stages of decomposition can be very difficult to identify. The pathologist may take x-rays of dentition or other areas. They may search for serialized medical devices like pacemakers, breast implants, or stabilizing plates. Of course the best method for identification is the fingerprint. Fingerprints are unique and permanent (meaning the patterns don't change during life unless seriously injured). making them ideal for identification. Most people in the United States have been fingerprinted to some degree. The most common fingerprint record is the single fingerprint  found associated with the driver's license. CSIs can also search for fingerprints on the victim's belongings (in their home, office, or vehicle).

But what do you do when the fingers have become shriveled or dried out during decomposition? Fingers can become shriveled in a day or two depending on the environmental conditions. The skin is still intact but it contracts and becomes rigid. This condition makes it almost impossible to get good quality impressions. The best way I can describe it is the difference between a raisin and a grape. So the real question becomes...how do you turn a raisin back into a grape? One method is the use of Photo-flo 200.

Photo-flo is a Kodak product used in rinsing photographic film during the development process. It's kind of like a really powerful soap. I'm sure the engineers at Kodak never envisioned how CSIs would someday use the solution. CSIs love to come up with new uses for products we have easy access to and this is no exception. To star the process we have to sever the finger or fingers we want to restore. The fingers are then soaked in the Photo-flo for anywhere from 24 hours to a week depending on how bad their condition is. The main objective is to get the tissue pliable again.

Once the tissue is pliable we have to inject a gel called "tissue builder". This is a semi-clear viscous material resembling epoxy (although not sticky). The tissue builder is injected under the skin using a syringe. The material expands the pliable skin, stretching it out to it's "normal" condition. Once this is done the finger can be rolled just like it would be in life. It only takes one good finger to make an identification so we have to check their records to see which ones might be the best to use. Once that is done it is a simple matter of comparing the fingerprint patterns and ridge detail to make an identification.


  1. You post the most fascinating stuff! And I always look for opportunities to use these details in my stories.

    But I would expect that many fingerprints are not in the system. How do you conclusively identify those people?

  2. Good question L.J., a lot of people are in the system and don't even realize it but, some aren't (including children). In these cases we may resort to processing items they own like books, DVDs, legal documents, photographs they may have handled, etc. It's not as definitive but if we see a preponderance of matching prints in a residence or workplace we can say with a degree of certainty that they belonged to the same person.

  3. Great post Tom.

    Good point about family identification too. I'm sure family members sometimes have a motivation to hide the truth.

    Nice pic of those fingers!

  4. In Canada we do fingerprints for drivers licenses. The only time fingerprints are taken is in relation to criminal activity, or sometimes with a police check to do certain jobs or volunteer services. Even for police checks these are rare and often protested. They are supposed to be destroyed once the person clears the check, though I suspect they often aren't unless the person makes a fuss.

  5. Very cool. I imagine Kodak was happy to hear of another use for one of their products.

    Thanks, Tom.

  6. Very interesting Tom...and a great plot device to consider for future use. I wish I had your mind right beside me while I'm writing. I'd never get stuck again.

  7. The picture just send chills up and down my spine. But it is great news that you find the different medical devices very useful.

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