An expert at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification works with the bone of an unidentified person to extract a DNA sample in this undated image. The UNT program supported law enforcement nationwide, especially with skeletal remains, until its $1 million NIJ grant was cut earlier this year. Several investigators told Forensic Magazine that the loss of the program has slowed death investigation to a crawl. However, funding for the program could soon return, officials now say. (Photo: Courtesy of UNT)

Detectives across the nation told Forensic Magazine earlier this year that a loss of funding to a program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center was severely impacting their ability to conduct investigations of unidentified, mostly skeletal, remains. They could no longer send their DNA samples to UNT to assist their investigations, and a backlog began to grow.

But the money could be there soon to allow the work to continue, officials now say. (Currently, UNT is utilizing NIJ funding for DNA testing on a backlog of cases).

The National Institute of Justice grant allowing all the states to send their samples of the nameless dead to UNT for analysis—administered through the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System—could return in the near future, officials said.

“NIJ has invited us to apply for continuation funding,” said NamUs in a statement in response to funding status questions posed by Forensic Magazine. “We submitted our application, which included funding for DNA testing, and it will be reviewed over the next few months by (the Office of Justice Programs). 

“We will find out in the next several months if our application has been approved and will find out about the release of the funding subsequent to that decision,” they added.

“Any supplemental funding awarded for 2017 will be announced in the fall,” the NIJ added in a statement.

Earlier this year, the $1 million federal funding was removed.

The UNT Center for Human Identification had become a crucial pipeline for investigators with challenging remains, investigators in states such as Michigan and New Jersey told Forensic Magazine in May. Roughly 1,200 out-of-state samples were submitted to the laboratory last year, according to numbers obtained by The Center for Investigative Reporting. Investigators from state and local agencies who had unknown bodies could count on sending their samples to UNT and getting the testing done at what had become a forensic standard for American law enforcement.

DNA experts said UNT is especially known for skeletal analysis, as well as the capacity to do mitochondrial sequencing, coupled with sheer experience through volume from nationwide samples.

So while NamUs has dental, fingerprint and other records on file that help to solve cases, it is DNA that has become an important linchpin for solving cases, and getting names to the nameless.

The $1 million grant for the DNA work is separate from the base funding for NamUs, which was started in 2006. UNT received a $4.7 million, four-year award in 2016 to keep NamUs running.