In May, Frank J. Kerrigan, 82, got the phone call every grieving family longs for.
“Your son is alive,” said Bill Shinker, a family friend who had been a pall bearer for Kerrigan’s son, Frank, 11 days earlier. Young Frank, who was mentally ill and homeless, had just turned up at Shinker’s home.
Shinker handed young Frank the phone. “Hi, Dad,” he said.
Kerrigan says he was notified of his son’s death by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office. As reported in the Orange County Register, a body was found behind a Verizon store. The trouble started when “somebody” said it looked like young Frank, who had grown up near there.
When Kerrigan called the coroner’s office, he was told it wouldn’t be necessary for him to identify the body because they had fingerprints. When the office released a bag of personal effects, Kerrigan was puzzled because his son’s attaché case, watch and writing pen weren’t there. But misidentification didn’t occur to him.
When the funeral home opened the casket, Kerrigan “took a little look and touched (Frank’s) hair,” but he didn’t realize that the dead man wasn’t his son. “I didn’t know what my dead son was going to look like,” Kerrigan said.
Kerrigan hired an attorney, who discovered that the coroner’s office didn’t identify the dead man through fingerprints. The office ran prints through a law enforcement database but found no match. So it obtained an old driver’s license and compared the photo with the dead man’s face. They thought the superficial resemblance was sufficient. Kerrigan’s attorney has filed a notice of intent to sue.
From my own experience and conversations with colleagues, it seems that a great many, if not most, large offices have botched an identification at least once. Faulty visual identifications, failure to follow procedures, tags switched … it happens.
It happened in Suffolk County, N.Y., where I trained. Representatives of two funeral homes arrived to pick up bodies at the same time. The names were similar. The bodies were somehow switched, and to his family’s subsequent horror, an orthodox Jewish man was cremated. They sued and collected, as I recall, somewhere around $80,000.
Photo ID comparisons and other visual identifications are unreliable. Everybody in the law enforcement and death investigation community knows that. I can remember times when I looked from the face of a dead body to a photo ID and back, shrugged, and said, “Well, I guess it looks enough like him.”
Identifications are frequently made by visual comparison because the method is simple, cheap and usually right under the typical circumstances of one person missing and one body found. In other circumstances, it’s dicey.
We could require scientific identification by fingerprints, dental comparisons or DNA in all cases, but the cost and the time involved would be prohibitive.
As one of my colleagues put it, “Are we really going to keep (all) bodies for a couple of weeks while we track down dental records?” It’s possible, with an “infinitely large refrigerator and legal protection against the hordes of family members who will be at our doors with torches and pitchforks” to make sure each body is correctly identified. But “passing standards that preclude a once-in-a-career event will harm … more people than it helps.”
People are fallible and procedures are imperfect. We should do what we reasonably can to minimize error, but perfection is impossible and funds are limited.
Meanwhile, nobody knows who is buried in Frank Kerrigan’s grave.
Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. Email her at email@example.com.