UNT Center for Human Identification to perform DNA analysis on remains from Florida reform school

September 5, 2013

The University of North Texas Center for Human Identification will perform DNA testing and analysis on human remains found buried in Florida at a former reform school.

Arthur Eisenberg, PhD, Chairman of Forensic and Investigative Genetics at UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, will lead efforts to identify the bodies. At least 10 families have offered DNA samples that can be compared against DNA that will be extracted from the human remains unearthed at the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla.

"We hope that by matching DNA extracted from the remains with reference samples provided by family members, we will be able to give a name to these unidentified children," said Dr. Eisenberg, who also is Co-Director of the UNT Center for Human Identification. "Families shouldn’t have to spend the rest of their lives wondering what happened to their loved ones."

Media Coverage
The Daily Beast: The bone collectors get to work at Florida’s Dozier School

Think on KERA Radio: The new clues that solve crimes

The Florida case:
Under a grant from the National Institute of Justice, Eisenberg’s team is collaborating with University of South Florida (USF) anthropologists to identify human remains on the grounds of the former reform school, which opened in 1900 and closed two years ago. The USF team plans to exhume dozens of unmarked graves. Preliminary work on exhumations began Aug. 31 in Florida, with researchers uncovering the bodies of two children. Additional excavations will continue in the coming months, with remains expected to arrive at UNT Health Science Center later this year.

What the Center does:
Since 2003, the UNT Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI) has processed more than 5,150 human remains, making 1,151 DNA associations that led to identifications. In addition, the Center has analyzed more than 14,400 family reference samples, representing more than 8,000 missing person cases.   

UNTCHI conducts DNA analysis for all missing person cases that are under the auspices of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It is the nation’s only lab set in an academic center that is approved to upload genetic data for unidentified remains to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, a law-enforcement database better known as CODIS.

UNTCHI is one of only a few public sector laboratories to specialize in the analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from skeletal remains.  Because mtDNA is maternally inherited ­- and all individuals from the same maternal lineage share a common mtDNA profile ­- even distant relatives along the sample maternal lineage can be used as reference samples to help identify unknown decedents. Mitochondrial DNA is more abundant and more resistant to degradation than nuclear DNA, which is more routinely analyzed in forensic cases. The analysis of mtDNA is often the only chance of making identifications in cases of old skeletal remains.

Though a grant from the National Institute of Justice, UNT Health Science Center also maintains the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Systems (NamUs), a national clearinghouse for missing person cases, unidentified remains, unidentified living individuals and unclaimed bodies.

Past cases:
In 2011, Eisenberg’s lab identified a previously unnamed victim of Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The Center also worked on cases brought to it by the task force investigating Gary Ridgway, a murderer in the Seattle area better known as the Green River Killer. The Center and its forensic scientists have participated in large-scale efforts to identify victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the 1973 Pinochet military coup in Chile.

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