Governor Signs Legislation to Aid in the Identification of Unknown Dead and Missing Persons

Bill sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Otis and Senator Diane Savino will help to bring closure to families searching for missing loved ones

Law enforcement agencies seeking to resolve cold cases and family members dealing with the heartbreak of a missing loved one got an important boost from legislation signed into law by Governor Cuomo last week. The new law, which was sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Otis (D-Rye) and Senator Diane Savino (D-IP-WP-Staten Island), promotes a more comprehensive sharing of fingerprints and other identifying data of unknown decedents by requiring medical examiners and coroners throughout New York to report this identifying information to the National Missing and Unidentified Remains System (NamUs).

The United States Department of Justice created the NamUs database to address the staggering number of human remains that go unidentified each year in this country. Of the approximately 4,400 unidentified human decedent cases that are handled annually by medical examiners and coroners nationwide, nearly a quarter cannot be identified after one year. Many remains are buried without identification.

Currently, over 13,000 unidentified persons are listed in the NamUs database. Of the over 2300 cases that have been closed, NamUs has aided in the identification of a third of those unknown decedents. The NamUs database provides a convenient mechanism for medical examiners and coroners to report identifying information that can then be accessed by law enforcement agencies and family members alike. It is unique in that families can access the database directly and can even submit additional identifying information about their missing loved ones.

All county medical examiners in the state are required to report information about unidentified remains to the NYS Division of Criminal Justice. While some medical examiners also voluntarily convey this information to the NamUs system, there was no state law requirement to do so.

The need for the legislation was brought to Assemblyman Otis’ attention by critically acclaimed and national bestselling author Jan Burke, who founded the not-for-profit Crime Lab Project to advocate for better funding of crime labs and for improvement of forensic science. Burke commented, “Thanks to this new legislation, death investigation practices concerning unidentified remains will improve. The families of the missing in New York will have a much better chance of learning the fates of their loved ones. But the families of the missing are not the only ones who will benefit – this is a public safety issue. When identifications are made, cold cases are much more likely to be solved — and killers more likely to be caught. Every effort to name the dead is an effort to acknowledge that every individual life matters. Thank you for leading the way, New York!”

“I am grateful to Governor Cuomo for his support of this legislation, which will increase the probability that human remains can be identified,” said Assemblyman Otis. “New York now becomes one of the first states in the nation to require that information about unidentified decedents be submitted to NamUs. Entering this information into NamUs is a relatively simple process, but it can mean so much to a family struggling with the tragic disappearance of a loved one. If utilizing the NamUs database can help to bring closure to families or assist law enforcement in resolving open criminal cases, it is certainly worth doing.”

Said Senator Savino, “When Medical Examiners and Coroners in New York State report unidentified human remains and other forensic data to NamUs, the entire country benefits. Law enforcement, families and all others involved in finding missing persons will have a greater possibility to solve one crime, a series of related crimes, and most importantly provide closure to grieving families who have lost loved ones with no explanation. I thank Assemblyman Steve Otis for sharing his concerns and sponsoring this bill with me.”

“We are pleased to see that New York has taken this positive step forward,” said Todd Matthews, the Case Management and Communications Director of NamUs. “No amount of hard work and effort can assemble a puzzle with missing pieces. On behalf of all of the team involved with NamUs, we appreciate passage of this milestone. The efforts of New York not only benefit New York, they benefit missing persons cases from across the nation.”