Medical examiners seek fingerprint access to identify Atlanta dead

For just more than a year, a body has been awaiting identification in the Fulton County morgue. Eight others lie there, too, unknown and unclaimed, the most recent arriving in mid-November.

Fulton is seeing a spike in the number of John and Jane Does this year, but officials plan to ask the state legislature for access to a statewide database that could help identify them.

The Georgia Crime Information Center, the 45-year-old statewide database that houses fingerprint information, could allow metro Atlanta medical examiners to identify bodies and notify families faster, said Jan Gorniak, Fulton’s chief medical examiner.


Gorniak said if the prints are in the state system, because of a past arrest, the county’s work of identification becomes much easier. To use dental records or DNA, a medical examiner has to have some idea who the deceased is. Fingerprints must simply be matched in the state or national database.

Now, Fulton and other counties have to send the fingerprints of the unidentified deceased to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, hoping for a match. The process can take days.

With the large increase in the number of people Fulton’s office needs to find names for, speed is of the essence. So far, Gorniak’s office has had to identify 156 people this year, a huge jump from the average of 93 a year since 2010, and far more than the 118 bodies in 2016.

Delays in identifying the dead are difficult for families, who often don’t know what has happened to their loved ones, Gorniak said. It can also be costly, in terms of storage and work hours. Gorniak said Fulton spends about $1,000 per unidentified person.

Often, they are homeless or victims of accidents or crimes.

“These deaths are sudden and unexpected,” Gorniak said. “Reuniting people with their families is of utmost importance.”

Gwinnett and Cobb counties usuallydon’t have an issue with identifications, representatives from their medical examiners’ offices said, but the director of DeKalb County’s medical examiner’s office said increased access to fingerprint information would help him.

“It will benefit us all,” Patrick Bailey said. “Getting that initial name is huge.”

Bailey said when someone dies without identification on them, the medical examiner’s office can look through the deceased’s belongings for clues, put photos in the community or wait for someone to call and ask if a body has been found. But bodies degrade quickly.

It’s also important for medical examiner’s office not hold on to people for too long, for fear that there’s a major incident and there isn’t enough room to house all the bodies.

After Hurricane Irma, Bailey said, DeKalb came close to reaching its 50-person capacity because there was nowhere to move people to, even once they had been IDed.

Bahan Rich, a spokesperson for the GBI, said that agency is holding on to 250 unidentified remains, with the oldest dating to 1969. The GBI covers all Georgia counties that don’t have a medical examiner, which is most of the state. Rich said county coroners work to confirm the identities of the deceased before they come to the GBI.

He said it’s time for the department to start storing DNA instead of remains for those who have been there the longest.

When a match is found, it can mean the world to relatives, Rich said. He recalled one case, where someone was found dead — of natural causes — on a south Georgia plantation. The sister of the deceased man had lost touch with her brother, but had always wondered about him. Knowing where he was, even though he had died, “allowed them to bring him back home, to close that chapter in their lives,” Rich said.

“You want closure for the family,” he said. “This is a person here.”


Even those that have lost touch with their loved ones want to know what happened, and why, Rich said. It allows them to come to terms with the unexpected death.

Gorniak said she doesn’t know why there has been an increase in people her office needs to identify. The number of deceased who are homeless has been relatively steady, she said, but fires, car accidents or gunshot wounds that make a body hard to identify could be culprits. She also said some may be in Atlanta from somewhere else.

Because people sometimes come to big cities to hide, or have developed support networks other than family, it can be difficult to determine who they are connected to, Rich said. Without property, a car, a driver’s license or credit cards, “you can be anybody or you can be nobody,” he said.

Quicker fingerprint access can help find someone who has crossed state lines, Gorniak said. It would also be useful if there was a mass casualty incident like the Las Vegas shooting earlier this year, where people quickly wanted to know if their loved ones were among the dead.

“We still consider them patients,” Gorniak said of the deceased. “The extension of them are their families. …We want to reunite them with their loved ones quicker, so they can start the grief process and get closure.”



The AJC's Arielle Kass keeps you updated on the latest happenings in Fulton County government and politics. You'll find more on, including these stories:


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