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WATCH: Digital facial reconstruction offers hope in unsolved cases

Digital facial reconstruction of an unidentified person whose remains were found in Mowbray.

Digital facial reconstruction of an unidentified person whose remains were found in Mowbray.

Published Nov 21, 2023


In a bid to assist local police, researchers used digital facial reconstruction to produce realistic facial images of five unidentified people whose remains were found in Philippi East, Mitchell’s Plain, Mowbray and Lentegeur from 2020 to 2022.

An estimated 7 000 unidentified bodies in South Africa's medico-legal laboratories are waiting to be identified each year, said Dr Kathryn Smith, a visual and forensic artist and chairperson of the Department of Visual Arts at Stellenbosch University.

The images are part of a public appeal for help in identifying these bodies, and the last chance for police in the province to bring closure to families who may be desperately searching for information about their loved ones' whereabouts.

The public appeal is one outcome of a pilot study by the Western Cape Cold Case Consortium (W4C), funded by a Cape Higher Education Consortium (Chec)-City of Cape Town regional innovation grant in 2021.

An team of researchers based at SU, UCT, and the Western Cape’s Department of Health Forensic Pathology Services provided enhanced analysis of the five cases.

The facial depictions represent the synthesis of findings derived from forensic pathology, forensic anthropology, digital imaging, craniofacial analysis, isotope analysis and forensic genetics.

Smith, a senior lecturer at SU and Pearl Mamathuba, a lecturer and PhD candidate, produced the facial depictions in the university’s VIZ.Lab – an imaging laboratory.

SU said its Visual Arts Department was the first at a university in Africa, and one of only a handful in the world, to offer research and casework experience in forensic facial imaging.

“Identification in such cases is greatly enhanced by public circulation. It is really their last chance to be reunited with their names and hopefully their kin, so that they may be granted the dignity of proper interment. The investigation of those who may be responsible for their deaths can only be pursued once a victim’s identification is known. May these individuals be identified soon,” said Smith.

The Western Cape Cold Case Consortium said the inability to identify hundreds of bodies was a humanitarian crisis. Unidentified human remains also placed a strain on the health-care system as they required considerable resources for investigation, storage and burial.

Digital facial reconstruction of unidentified persons whose remains were found in Mitchells Plain.

W4C suggested that reported statistics on missing persons might not be accurate.

“Families with missing loved ones exist in limbo; the not-knowing is extremely painful. By working across forensic disciplines and with the government we can gain new insight into unresolved forensic cases. This type of trans-disciplinary research, combining existing and experimental methods, and fostering good communication between agencies and with the public, can only improve forensic service delivery. This brings hope to many families looking for answers and eases the burden unidentified cases places on our forensic facilities,” Smith said.

Cape Times