Imagine the killer from the infamous “Headless Man Found in Topless Bar” murder was convicted using a photograph of the face of the victim, with reliability rivaling that of DNA analysis. Impossible?
With a skull found, how can we determine to whom it belonged?
A research group at the University of Granada has developed a new method that merges facial photographs with 3D images of a skull called craniofacial superimposition that could revolutionize forensic analysis.
How did they do it?
Identifying remains using photographs or even paintings has been used since the 19th century. This group proposes that a new database be formed based upon such images, so that photographs can be scanned for similarity, leading to identification of suspects.
From the press release:
University of Granada researchers have developed a new forensic identification technique that compares the skull with one or several pictures of the subject while still alive. This system is based on the forensic identification technique known as craniofacial superimposition; this technique involves analysing the morphology of the face by locating a set of reference points either on the skull (craniometric points) and on a picture (somatometric points) of the subject alive.
Less Costly and as Reliable as DNA Analysis
This is a pioneer study in the field of craniofacial superimposition, as this is the first time that the reference points on the skull are compared with the reference points on a real picture of the subject while still alive, using CAT scanning. Until now, only the corpse was used, which led to misidentifications.
From the publication in ACM Computing Surveys:
Successful comparison of human skeletal remains with artistic or photographic replicas
has been achieved many times using the craniofacial superimposition technique,
ranging from the studies of the skeletal remains of the poet Dante Alighieri in the
nineteenth century [Welcker 1867], to the identification of victims of the recent Indian
Ocean tsunami [Al-Amad et al. 2006]. Among the huge number of case studies where
craniofacial superimposition has been applied  it is worth noting it was helpful in the
identification of well-known criminals as John Demanjuk (known to Nazi concentration
camp survivors as “Ivan the Terrible”) and Adolf Hitler’s chief medical officer Dr. Josef
Mengele at Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1985 [Helmer 1986]. Furthermore, it is currently used
in the identification of terrorists [Indriati 2009].