1. agentkirb
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    agentkirb Contributing Member

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    Probable timetable for identifying a "John Doe"

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by agentkirb, Sep 26, 2011.

    Ok, so I've obviously asked crime questions before. This is more of the same. The question is... say someone dies and their ID is gone and their DNA isn't in the system, etc. How long could it possibly take for the forensic people to figure out the persons ID? I know on all of the TV shows they always figure it out in mere hours, but I don't want to assume that's the norm. And really what I'm asking is what do you guys think would be the longest plausible time they would keep trying to look before they just gave up? Only a few days? A week? A few weeks? Or perhaps a month after the crime they decide to look over evidence with fresh eyes to see if they could get anywhere on the persons ID.
     
  2. Summer
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    I am not an officer, nor do I work in law enforcement in any form, but my guess is that it depends. Not a good answer but I think for writing you will have a lot of leeway. Some reasons I think it might vary would be: nature of the case--if it looks related to something else, bigger, it may motivate the police more; amount of other cases the department is working; if someone comes forward that [person] is missing who turns out to be this John Doe; other identifying objects on this dead person like clothing affiliated with something else (religion, workplace, etc.). I think it depends strongly on whether the body has ANY leads, and if the people that get contacted are helpful. So it is possible that someone could be identified in a few hours, and its possible that a person might never be identified.

    I wouldn't be worried about being "accurate" because there is so much variation. You get to plant all [or none] of the evidence and you get to decide if any new clues come up. In real life there are all sorts of "freak incidents" that allow investigators to solve cold cases, weird occurrences that are linked to past events and provide insight, etc. Just make sure not to stretch the readers belief in your story too far.
     
  3. agentkirb
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    agentkirb Contributing Member

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    I guess I'll be more descriptive with what I'm talking about. Lets say a woman is on vacation in a big city and one night is the victim of a robbery-motivated murder on the street. Her purse is taken which has her ID... and for the sake of argument lets assume there is no obvious signs of who she is or that she's even a tourist. Meanwhile, her parents are back in her hometown... the victim doesn't live with her parents so they don't even know she's on vacation and only talk every month or so so wouldn't know that she's missing for awhile. Lets say a month later the parents get a call that their daughter is dead. The only way to explain this within the story is that somehow it took them a month to figure out the ID.

    I mean, I know there could be some convoluted series of events for something like that to happen. But at the same time I don't necessarily want to explain these events because it doesn't really matter. Why it took them a month to figure out the ID of the person is irrelevant to the story, and I feel like if I took the 3-4 sentences to explain it I would be over explaining details. But I just want to be able to say something like "her mother got a call from the police saying that her daughter had died a month ago and they had just now identified the body" and move on from there without people going "wait a second.. why did it take them a month to ID the body?". Maybe two weeks is more likely... I dunno.
     
  4. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    There are cold cases out there where there are still John Does. It's more common than you'd think. TV cuts it down and wraps it in a neat little package. It can take weeks to get toxicology reports and things of that nature. I'm not in law enforcement but if you ever watch shows about actual cold cases you'll see this is true.

    My sister was interested in pursuing forensics but one night at the morgue was more than enough to turn her off the idea of being involved in that career. Even in a lab. So I've picked up bits and pieces from her class she took a couple years ago.

    Dental records are a common way of identifying a body. The problem is you have to know who to compare them to. Or at least have a few people lined up that could be the John Doe. So it can easily take a month.
     
  5. Summer
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    Then don't explain it. I don't think a reader will scratch their head and get confused that is took a month to identify a body. The reader probably wont care why it took that long if it isn't relevant or add anything to the story. An explanation or some sort of justification in your mind wont help a reader find it more believable in their eyes either. So you either need to add the explanation (this could be through the parents questioning the officers when they reveal she has been dead for awhile, or some other way that can be quick and concise) or not worry about the reader questioning it.

    To be honest, under your scenario I would think it would take more than a month, so the two weeks wouldn't sound more likely to me. There are no leads, and she is a tourist. These are the cases that take forever to solve because she has no connections near by, coupled with a large city (which typically will have higher rates of unsolved murders), it is unlikely to happen quickly and often never does.
     
  6. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    it can just as easily never happen, since in the scenario you present, there's no way for the local authorities to identify the woman, unless she's at some point reported missing and her description entered into a missing persons databank...

    but the key here is that you're the writer, so you can set up the situation so she'll not be id'd for however long suits your plot's purpose:

    does she have a boyfriend or other friends who'll notice she's missing?
    does she have a job where she'll be missed?
    does she regularly contact her parents, so that after the usual call/letter/email period passes they'll report her missing?
    has she ever been fingerprinted for a job, or during childhood as a scout, or in a school id drive, so the search for prints on file may take longer than usual?
    has she ever donated blood, so her dna may be on file in a blood bank?

    ...and so on... now go do your writer-thing! ;)

    hugs, maia
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Potter's fields near cities worldwide are full of the remains of people who have never been identified. And more are interred nearly every day.
     
  8. skeloboy_97
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    skeloboy_97 Senior Member

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    TV shows are a lot of the time, very innacurate. If there were any clues on the murderer, the officers may search for an ID a little longer, OR, if it was a serial killer or a few time murderer. On this type of case, I would say maybe a week or two of media attention and autopsies etc.. of no success that the officers would possibly start giving up.

    For instance, you could have it that they are looking over for weeks, and then on the last day they figure it out, but saying so, this may sound a little too much like a CSI TV Show sort of thing.

    Best of Luck.
     
  9. Oscillate Wildly
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    Oscillate Wildly New Member

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    You could probably write a pretty decent story about them just finding out who the John Doe is. It could be pretty interesting how the police try to figure out who he is, and discover many interesting things about the person, or find out some dark past (like if he is a serial killer). But to answer your question, it could take a week to a decade, to even longer! It all depends on you and how long you want the story to be about this unknown cadaver.

    Good luck in your story, mate.
     

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