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Photos of dead aim to bring new life to cold cases

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MILWAUKEE » The corpses’ faces are mostly bloated, their skin pale and discolored. One man’s lips are stiffened into a grim frown and he stares with half-open eyes. Another man appears to be sleeping, his color natural enough that he almost looks alive.

Forensic investigator Michael Simley knows some people will find the photographs unsettling, but he said he decided to post them online for an important reason: the bodies are unidentified. All were found in Wisconsin’s most populous area, Milwaukee County, and have been without names for years — decades, in some cases — and Simley said he’s desperate to find answers.

"We’re not doing these people justice to let them go unidentified. These are family members, friends, people who are missed," Simley said. "Everyone deserves to be recognized as who they were in life. Being buried as a Jane or John Doe doesn’t sit well with me."

Investigators nationwide use a variety of tools when asking for the public’s help identifying corpses. Many release sketches or 3-D clay models, along with photos of tattoos, clothing or jewelry of the deceased. But a handful are now taking the more extreme step of releasing photographs of faces.

The practice has helped Las Vegas’ coroner identify dozens of bodies. Other medical examiners seem hesitant to embrace it but are generally supportive of their colleagues’ intentions.

Simley’s website has not led to any identifications yet, though it has been active for about a month. It lists the cases of 17 unidentified bodies along with facial pictures of six of the adults and one infant. Simley said there have been no complaints, and he noted that several of the pictures were touched up to remove evidence of decomposition.

Users must navigate through a series of warnings that advise viewer discretion before the pictures become viewable. Once there, many of the images are disconcerting.

"We did take into consideration the concern about kids viewing them," Simley said. "Even though these pictures are of a graphic nature, the main thing is to get these people identified."

Some medical examiners said they understand Simley’s reasoning, but others said the tactic is ill-conceived.

Nici Vance, a forensic anthropologist for the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Oregon, said she would never publicly release photographs of the dead. She said sketches are far better, because artists can leave out wounds or other signs of violence and draw the face with eyes and mouth closed.

"A photo could be pretty traumatic for the family to see," she said. "A sketch allows a family to focus on the features rather than see a half-lidded, pale, pasty visualization of their loved one."

Each of the Milwaukee County entries links to a broader profile in the national database NamUs, or National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. The website lists more than 8,000 open cases, allowing law enforcement agencies to search a single site rather than thousands of disconnected ones.

Most of the publicly viewable images are limited to sketches and maps of where the bodies were found. A recent search by The Associated Press turned up several dozen photos of faces of the deceased, though they rarely showed signs of trauma. Among those that did was a photo from Riverside County, Calif., of a woman with small bloody scrapes on her cheek and forehead.

Figuring out what images to make public can be tricky. Some photos are simply too gruesome. In other cases, a body is bloated or partially decomposed, enough that a photo or sketch might be unrecognizable even to close relatives. Three-dimensional clay models of a head might be easier to recognize, but those artists often base their interpretations on a skull, so guesswork is involved.

One of the most favored options is the sketch, which can be expensive or take a long time. Plus, some sketches are left somewhat vague so viewers aren’t too quick to conclude they don’t know the person.

That’s why Mike Murphy, the coroner in Nevada’s Clark County — home to Las Vegas — is a strong supporter of photographs. He started posting photos online shortly after he was appointed to the job in 2003 — when, Murphy admits, he was too inexperienced to realize the potential backlash.

The website launched amid controversy and plenty of media coverage, but Murphy received quick validation: Within 24 hours, a corrections officer recognized one unidentified body as that of a frequent inmate, and a second body was identified 48 hours later.

Since then, the online photos have led to nearly 50 identifications, he said. Another 200 or so remain unidentified.

Murphy said he’s motivated by seeing how painful life becomes for relatives of the missing, and he said families helped by the public photos are grateful.

"They’re searching for their loved one 24 hours a day, seven days a week — going shopping, driving their car, they’re always looking," he said. "When you can give them resolution, you give them peace."

Atlanta-based medical examiner Randy Hanzlick, who helps moderate NamUs, predicted that computer-imaging technology would eventually improve enough that it could replace the need for sketches or photographs.

But until then, Simley is sticking with photographs in Milwaukee County. He calls it a necessity.

"We’re desperate at this point," he said. "These are cold cases that have been collecting dust in our archives, and we’re trying to bring them new life. If I had a family member missing, I wouldn’t want someone to give up. We’re not giving up."

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