Working for the Sumter County Coroner's Office is no easy task by the job description alone. And the job can be much more difficult if the deceased is without ID or unrecognizable.
Though the coroner's office can't prevent that, staff will be …
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Though the coroner's office can't prevent that, staff will be able to identify the deceased more quickly now after receiving authorization to use a new device that can identify a person within minutes by scanning his or her fingerprints.
If you have been fingerprinted for any reason - military, law enforcement, registering for a concealed weapons permit, applying to become a foster parent, or an arrest - your prints will show up in the system, Coroner Robbie Baker said.
The MorphoIDent handheld fingerprint recognition device - about the size of a cellphone - can positively identify a person, living or deceased, after at least two of the person's fingers have been scanned. The accompanying computer software will then display the person's picture, name, date of birth, last known address and other information.
"We got authorized on Thursday and used it on Saturday," Deputy Coroner Brian Rogers said.
Rogers was the first staff member to use the device while investigating a hit-and-run death of a 41-year-old man in Rembert on Feb. 10.
Baker said the man sustained such serious injuries that it was difficult to identify him, and he did not have an ID on him.
The device, which is also used by law enforcement agencies, will be useful because there are many people not native to Sumter coming through the area, he said, such as personnel stationed at Shaw Air Force Base and people traveling Interstate 95. Baker learned about the device while attending the coroner's academy in January 2017, and he set out to purchase one as soon as he could.
However, because the coroner's office is not a law enforcement agency, Baker and his team did not have the authority to access the identification database without approval from SLED or the FBI.
The coroner's office waited about six months to use the device - valued at about $1,400 - after purchasing it while SLED and the FBI performed background checks on coroner's office staff and created an identification number for the office to access the fingerprint information.
Baker and his team needed assistance identifying three bodies in 2017.
Not speaking specifically about the Rembert man, Baker said there are some people who use aliases or do not carry ID for various reasons.
"You can change your name all you want, but your fingerprint is your fingerprint," he said.
Without the fingerprint device, the coroner's office must use other methods to identify a body, such as requesting local law enforcement to check fingerprints, using a photo search through the DMV and reaching out to the community through social media.
While those other methods get the job done, they can also be time consuming and possibly detrimental to the death investigation.
If law enforcement is called, Rogers said, they could use ink to get fingerprints, which could get under the deceased's fingernails and distort evidence, especially during cases of self defense.
He said the DMV helped in identifying a man who died of a gunshot wound on Feb. 19. The man had legally changed his name, and the family was not aware of the name change, he said.
Facebook is useful in identifying people or notifying out-of-state relatives, Rogers said, but only after all other measures have been exhausted.
However, Facebook and other social media platforms have also proven to be a burden to the coroner's office when staff is trying to quickly identify the deceased and notify the family.
"It's a race against Facebook," Baker said. "Stuff spreads fast online."
The MorphIDent device will allow the coroner's office to quickly identify the deceased, he said, and notify the next of kin before they can get the news online.
Sometimes, people who are near the scene will identify the deceased and post the information on Facebook, he said. By the time someone from the coroner's office shows up to the next of kin's house, they already know what happened.
That makes the situation more stressful because the family is already upset, he said.
Though the job is not glamorous, coroner's office staff understand the importance of what they do and the significant role the fingerprint reader will play moving forward.
"We're out there for one reason," Rogers said, "and that's for the deceased."
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