This facial reconstruction of a teenage "Jane Doe," whose decomposed remains were discovered in Pennsylvania in 1973, will be one of the first enhanced with the use of DNA phenotyping, provided by Parabon Nanolabs through their new partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (Images: Courtesy of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)

For years, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has generated facial reconstructions of unidentified children through forensic artists who estimate features from the structure of the skull. These reconstructions have been published in grayscale, as details such as skin tone, hair color and eye color cannot be determined from the skeletal remains of the Jane and John Does left behind. When released to the public, these reconstructions have generated many leads and led to identification in several cases, but according to the NCMEC, over 700 of their unidentified child cases remain unsolved.

Now, through a new partnership announced yesterday with Parabon NanoLabs—a company in Virginia known for its use of DNA phenotyping technology in criminal cases—the NCMEC hopes to enhance their ability to reconstruct the faces of the unnamed and unclaimed by incorporating previously unknown features of the victims.

“What we’re hoping is that by adding the Parabon phenotypes, which would be adding color to the NCMEC facial reconstruction, (we) will create a more lifelike and more realistic facial reconstruction of what that victim may have looked like in life,” Carol Schweitzer, senior forensic case specialist at NCMEC, told Forensic Magazine. “We’re hoping that’s going to generate more public attention and, in turn, solid, more concrete leads that are going to lead to the victim’s identification.”

DNA phenotyping is a technique, developed in recent years, that derives estimates about a person’s physical appearance from their DNA profile—this includes details such as their ethnicity, skin color, hair color, eye color and even the amount of freckles the might have, according to Parabon’s website. From a person’s DNA—usually that of an unidentified suspect in a criminal case—Parabon generates a digital facial image of the person that incorporates these phenotypical details.

Parabon’s technology has been used by some police departments across the country to aid in criminal cases, and in some cases has led to the arrest of a suspect who was later found to be a DNA match to the crime scene. In one of these cases, DNA from blood drops at a crime scene allowed Parabon to generate an image that helped police pinpoint a man named Jose Alvarez Jr. in a North Carolina double murder. Alvarez was later convicted of the crime.  

However, unlike in these cases, NCMEC will be using the phenotyping technology to visualize deceased victims, not suspects, and instead of using Parabon’s digitally generated phenotype image, they will be combining the information unveiled by Parabon with the reconstructions they were able to create using a CT scan of the victim’s skull.

“We will be keeping the NCMEC facial reconstruction, which is based on the actual skull, the bones. That’s the closest approximation that we’re going to get,” Schweitzer explained. “We’re just going to apply the phenotype colors to the NCMEC facial reconstruction.”

The NCMEC says it will send its first five cases to Parabon before the end of the year. NCEC senior program manager Rebecca Kovar told Forensic Magazine that two of these cases will be a 1973 Jane Doe who was found in a wooded area in Altamonte Springs, Florida, and another Jane Doe found the same year near a dirt road in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Grayscale facial reconstructions of both Jane Does have already been created by NCMEC forensic artists and released to the public, but a more detailed and true-to-life depiction could increase the chance of someone recognizing a child, Schweitzer said.

A family member, friend or other witness recognizing a victim’s face can be what makes the difference between a decedent being identified or remaining nameless. In February, a NCMEC John Doe case was solved after a former classmate of a teenager found dead from suicide in 1984 recognized his face from a reconstruction developed by NCMEC forensic artists.

The still-new technology of DNA phenotyping has seen both success and skepticism since its emergence as a forensic tool, with some citing its limitations in predicting phenotypes with completely accuracy. One analysis showed that while predictions for brown and blue eyes were about 95 percent accurate, predictions for other eye colors could not be determined with as much certainty—the analysis also showed that hair color predictions were about 75 percent accurate. But Schweitzer says the NCMEC-Parabon partnership is several years in the making, and that the organization has taken the time to better understand how DNA phenotyping can enhance their cases.

“We wanted to make sure that this was a resource (…) that we supported and believed in,” Schweitzer said.

The new, enhanced facial reconstructions will be posted on the NCMEC’s Help ID Me Facebook page and the NCMEC website once they are complete.