History of the Database

Founded in 1972 as a statewide centralized, university-based office, The Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) is a unique institution in the US. In 2010, the OMI moved into a new, state-of-the-art building. The new laboratories included first-in-the-nation computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging for forensic investigation. The Center for Forensic Imaging was founded as a collaboration of the UNM departments of radiology, pathology, and the OMI in 2011.

In 2010, the OMI received a grant to fund CT scanning for cases suspected of having causes of death related to blunt force injuries, firearm injuries, drug poisoning and childhood trauma ( NIJ 2010-DN-BX-K205, Kurt Nolte, Principal Investigator). The goal was to determine the value of CT images to either supplement or supplant traditional autopsy for these causes of death. Results showed that together, autopsy and CT scanning allowed medical examiners to discover 20% more injuries than either method alone. Further, results indicated that CT imaging was of value in cases where non-destructive, non-invasive methods of examination were preferred (cite tech report?)

Whole body scanning was determined to be so useful it was generally incorporated in death investigation at the OMI. Today scanning continues, documenting over 2500 individuals per year, approximately 90% of cases that are processed through the office.

While this new data source is excellent for death investigation, three main challenges complicated use for research. Unfortunately, the CT images are stored as if in a flat file, so they are not readily searchable. Additionally, there is no software product that merges medical examiner case management with a CT image storage and viewing database. Finally, much of medical examiner data is text string and unstandardized, making searching metadata for patterns difficult, and results likely to be incomplete.

The metadata fields for the database were determined through an iterative process with experts from multiple fields. The fields queried included: forensics, anthropology, informatics, medicine, dentistry and demography. The experts selected 59 variables as being important to include in the website. These were modified as needed in order to utilize vocabulary standards that were available. To read about the selection process please see Shamsi Berry’s thesis.

To remedy the inability to use the data for research, the NIJ funded a grant to develop this database to be user friendly, accessible, documented, and available to researchers at no cost (2016-DN-BX-0144, Heather Edgar, Principal Investigator). Several teams worked to create this unique data resource, including the UNM Center for Advanced Research Computing, UNM College of Arts and Sciences Information Technology team, the UNM Anthropology Department, and the Office of the Medical Investigator. Together, we developed a plan to de-identify, document, and distribute this resource. This website and the associated data resources are the result.