How Much Evidence?

I’m so excited to host forensic specialist Amryn Cross as a new guest blogger to Redwood’s Medical Edge. To welcome her properly I asked my Facebook peeps what forensic questions they might have.

This was the first one:

How much forensic evidence does the court need to declare a missing person dead without a body?

Welcome, Amryn!!

Great question. The short answer is, it depends.
Any question involving the court itself has the potential to be highly variable. Different states have different laws, and some judges may allow things that others would not. That being said, I’ll answer this based on the most common occurrences in the U.S.
In most states, common law indicates a missing person may be declared dead after seven years with no evidence to indicate they may be alive. That means if a missing person’s bank account still gets regular deposits and withdrawals, if their name shows up on a deed in another state, or if they contact anyone this would be sufficient evidence that the person is alive (or their identity has been stolen, in which case this would be investigated).
If, after seven consecutive years of absence and a diligent but unsuccessful search for this person, there may be a court order issued to the registrar, instructing them to issue a death certificate.
As far as forensic evidence goes, a person may be declared dead sooner than seven years based on “sufficient evidence”. What constitutes sufficient evidence may be up to a judge in that jurisdiction.
One example includes finding a large pool of the victim’s blood provided it is a volume large enough that a person couldn’t have survived a loss that significant.
The other caveat is a person may be presumed dead because they were in imminent peril. This happens following plane crashes or mass disasters or even war. The passengers of the Titanic who did not arrive aboard the Carpathia in New York were declared dead in a matter of days and weeks. A similar thing happened after September 11.
Courts don’t automatically grant the order for a death certificate, even after the seven years. If a petition is made for a death certificate, the following criteria may be considered as reasons to deny the petition:
·         the absent person was a fugitive from justice
·         the absent person had a bad relationship
·         the absent person was having money troubles
·         the absent person had no family ties or connection to the community
Again, this is highly dependent on individual courts/judges. It always pays to check the laws in your particular jurisdiction.
Here’s a good article on the basics of declaring death and what happens when that person turns out to be very much alive. 

Amryn Cross is a full-time forensic scientist and author of romantic suspense novels. Her first novel, Learning to Die, will be released in September. In her spare time, she enjoys college football, reading, watching movies, and researching her next novel. You can connect with Amryn via her website, Twitter and Facebook.

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