This story is part of an ongoing series, Left for Dead: Inside America’s Coldest Cases.
A Connecticut lawmaker has resurrected his efforts to more effectively link reported missing people with over 10,000 unidentified Jane and John Does held in morgues and public cemeteries around the nation.
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy announced today that the Help Find the Missing Act he plans to introduce this week would provide $2.4 million in funding each year through at least 2020 for a federal database known as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs.
So far, efforts to pass the legislation have failed three consecutive times in Congress. The last version, introduced in September 2014, never made it out of the House and Senate judiciary committees.
“Unfortunately, Congress is defined more these days by what doesn’t pass than by what does pass,” Murphy said in an interview. “I don’t want to be too optimistic in handicapping our chances given the amount of gridlock that occurs here. But this issue is above partisanship and ideology.”
Murphy said the measure has suffered in the past from less debate time than other higher-profile legislation, such as that geared toward child sex trafficking. He said, however, that the latest push has bipartisan support, including co-sponsorship from Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota.
A companion bill, according to Murphy’s office, is being introduced in the House by Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, and Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn.
The plight of the nation’s unidentified dead was the focus of Left for Dead, an investigation by Reveal that found that neglect, indifference and a lack of will by many state and local authorities – police, medical examiners and others – hinder the identification of Jane and John Does.
The NamUs database is managed by the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas in Fort Worth and was first launched in 2007 with financial support from the Justice Department. Medical examiners and coroners can upload case information to the system about the dead and unknown and generate possible matches based on a number of criteria, such as hair color, height and the date the unidentified remains were discovered.
Unlike another database of such cases closely guarded by the FBI, NamUs is open for members of the public to search and notify officials if they think they have found a match. As part of an ongoing project about Jane and John Does, Reveal created an alternative search tool using data from NamUs that streamlines searches of case information and allows side-by-side comparisons.
There were 1,881 cases in NamUs labeled homicides as of June, according to data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. For another 5,517, the manner of death was undetermined or not listed. There were 916 Jane and John Does listed as children and young adults in the system as of Aug. 1.
Murphy said the most critical component of his legislation would integrate NamUs with the FBI’s own records on Jane and John Does and help ensure that information about future cases is shared between the two systems. As a condition for receiving certain federal grants, the bill also would require state and local agencies to report unidentified human remains to NamUs and the FBI within 72 hours.
The measure is known as “Billy’s Law” for a constituent’s son who went missing in 2004 at the age of 31. The missing Connecticut man’s mother, Janice Smolinski, has been lobbying since his disappearance to improve the process for comparing missing persons reports with unidentified remains kept by state and local agencies around the country. NamUs is voluntary, and there is no federal requirement that state and local authorities report unidentified remains to it or any other centralized repository.
Smolinksi said police were slow to act when she first reported her son missing, and she believes that was in part because he was an adult.
“They felt that he just went off on his own and he’d be back when he was ready,” she said. “That’s the wrong way to look at a case. You need to use sensitivity and listen to the families. Missing adults, I feel, are just as important as the children. All people are important.”
Unidentified cases can go unresolved for years or even decades as families await news. Some Jane and John Does turn out to have vanished from the same communities where they spent their whole lives, but authorities were unable to connect the dots.
Once introduced, the bill will have to clear the judiciary committees of both houses before a vote by members of Congress.
This story was edited by Fernando Diaz. It was copy edited by Sheela Kamath.