Todd Matthews (left), a Kentucky state trooper (center) and Harlan County Coroner Philip Bianchi compare a bone found at Mountain Jane Doe’s exhumation site in Harlan with an example in a forensic manual. Credit: Scott Anger for Reveal

Tennessee is the third state in the nation to require police to enter all missing persons into a national database of Jane and John Does – the unidentified dead – to improve the chances of matches between the two. The new law also requires coroners and medical examiners to enter available DNA, fingerprints and dental information for any unidentified bodies that come through their offices.

“What this bill does is simply establish certain requirements to aid in the finding of missing persons … and alleviate the pain that families suffer as a result of not knowing what happened to a family member,” state Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, who sponsored the bill, told the House Criminal Justice Committee.

When an unidentified body is found, solving the mystery of the person’s identity isn’t easy. The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, is the U.S. Department of Justice program in charge of solving these cases. But there are no national laws requiring coroners, medical examiners or law enforcement officials to use the database. As a result – as Reveal reported in a radio documentaryvideo seriesdata app and text stories – cases that could be solved stay unsolved, and families are left in the dark about the fate of their loved ones.

One federal bill addressing this issue, the Help Find the Missing Act, or “Billy’s Law,” never made it out of  committee. It last was proposed by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., in 2015.

Without federal legislation, states are tackling the issue on their own. New York and Connecticut are the other two that currently have similar requirements.

“This is the most inclusive bill to date for missing and unidentified,” Todd Matthews, who runs NamUs, said of HB 44, which passed unanimously in both houses. “It’s so important to have all the pieces of the puzzle on the table if you have any hope of putting it together.”

Michael I Schiller can be reached at mschiller@revealnews.org.

Michael I Schiller

Michael I Schiller is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. His Emmy Award-winning work spans animation, radio and documentary film.

“The Dead Unknown,” a video series he directed about the crisis of America's unidentified dead, earned a national News and Documentary Emmy Award, national Edward R. Murrow Award and national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award.

His 2015 animated documentary short film “The Box,” about youth solitary confinement, was honored with a video journalism award from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter, a San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Award and a New Orleans Film Festival special jury prize, and it was nominated for a national News and Documentary Emmy for new approaches.

Schiller was one the producers of the pilot episode of the Peabody Award-winning Reveal radio show and podcast. He continues to regularly produce audio documentaries for the weekly public radio show, which airs on over 450 stations nationwide. Schiller is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.