Composite drawing (Forensic Science)
Forensic artists, also known as police artists or sketch artists, are specially trained professionals whose work assists law-enforcement investigators in the identification, apprehension, and conviction of unknown suspects in unsolved criminal cases. Certified by the forensic Art Certification Board of the International Association for Identification, forensic artists contribute to the investigatory process primarily through their creation of composite drawings or sketches, called composite imagery.
Forensic artists create composite drawings of unknown suspects on the basis of reports from victims or other witnesses (informants) about the perpetrators of unsolved crimes. From memory, an informant provides a sketch artist with a description of a suspect, and the artist creates a composite drawing that emerges as the artist obtains increasingly specific information about the suspect’s facial features. With the exception of the largest police departments in the United States, few American law-enforcement agencies employ full-time sketch artists. Most share the services of police artists with other agencies or hire local professional artists on an ad hoc basis to create composite imagery.
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Beginnings of Forensic Art (Forensic Science)
The field of forensic art has a long history. In the United States, the earliest practitioners were the artists of the Old West who created the posters depicting wanted criminals that were displayed in a wide range of public settings, including in churches, schools, saloons, and post offices. During the late nineteenth century, French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon created the first formal system of criminal identification, which included techniques that became the forerunners of forensic art. Bertillon’s book on anthropometry (the study of the dimensions of the human body), Identification anthropométrique; instructions signalétiques (1893; Signaletic Instructions Including the Theory and Practice of Anthropometrical Identification, 1896), laid the groundwork for the basic procedures of composite drawing that continue to influence practitioners of the art.
During the 1950’s, a kit designed to aid in the creation of composite imagery, the Identi-Kit, became a huge commercial success. Use of the Identi-Kit became standard practice among U.S. law-enforcement agencies, especially in cases involving multiple victims or other witnesses. The kit contained a large collection of hand-drawn facial features (hairlines, mouths, cheekbones, eyes, noses, ears, and so on) from which informants could choose in building composite faces. By the 1970’s, police sketch artists had replaced the use of the...
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Uses of Composite Imagery (Forensic Science)
Composite drawings can be used in several ways. In most cases, a composite drawing is created to capture the facial appearance of an unknown suspect so that law-enforcement investigators can begin to narrow the pool of viable suspects and better target their search for the unknown offender. Although composite drawings are usually of faces, forensic artists also sometimes provide useful visual depictions of evidence in criminal cases, such as stolen property or automobiles, or of actions that transpired at crime scenes. All of these kinds of images can be submitted as demonstrative evidence in the trial process.
Composite drawings can be modified to simulate how suspects might appear as they naturally change or age or as they might attempt to alter their appearance by adopting various disguises. For example, a sketch artist can modify the original image of a suspect by adding or subtracting weight or by adding signs of aging. Other image modifications might include the addition of various types of facial hair (mustaches, beards, sideburns) and different types of glasses, hats, or piercings.
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Creating the Drawings (Forensic Science)
Forensic artists can create two-dimensional depictions of suspects by hand or with the aid of computer-imaging software. The success of either technique depends largely on the ability of the informant to describe the suspect accurately and on the talent of the police artist in translating the informant’s description into a precise re-creation of the suspect’s facial features.
Police sketch artists must possess not only artistic ability but also effective interviewing, listening, and intuitive skills. The creation of a composite drawing necessitates close communication between the informant and the sketch artist. To jog the informant’s memory, the artist asks the informant a series of questions covering all aspects of the crime incident, including questions about the length of time the perpetrator was observed, the lighting conditions at the crime scene, the distance between the perpetrator and the informant during the incident, and any obstacles that obstructed the informant’s view of the perpetrator.
Helping the informant return to the crime scene in his or her mind’s eye is a critical first step in the composite-drawing process. A well-executed rendering based on inaccurate information about a suspect’s appearance can be costly to a criminal investigation, wasting police time and resources and allowing an offender to remain at large to commit subsequent crimes. The sketch artist must take care to...
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Identifying the Dead (Forensic Science)
In addition to creating images of suspects for use in criminal investigations, police sketch artists are sometimes called upon to lend their skills to the identification of unknown deceased persons whose faces are unrecognizable because of suicide-related trauma, homicide, or accident, or as a result of decay, decomposition, or skeletonization. In such facial reconstruction or approximation, tissue depth markers and special drawing techniques are used to produce three-dimensional images.
A thorough examination of the human skull by a forensic anthropologist can reveal a great deal of information about the deceased, including the unknown person’s gender, approximate age, race, and overall size. A forensic artist can then use existing knowledge about the likely depths of tissue covering various parts of the face to fill in missing areas or to correct facial distortions in front- and profile-angle portraits or models so that the decedent’s re-created face can be used for postmortem identification. In some cases, forensic artists use clay to build three-dimensional faces on casts of the skulls of unidentified deceased persons. Facial reconstruction is usually employed only after other avenues of identifying an individual—such as by matching fingerprints, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), or dental records—have failed.
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Boylan, Jeanne. Portraits of Guilt: The Woman Who Profiles the Faces of America’s Deadliest Criminals. New York: Pocket Books, 2001. Provides a behind-the-scenes look at the career of Boylan, a nationally renowned police sketch artist. Dramatic narrative relates the author’s participation in several high-profile cases, including the searches for the Unabomber and for the perpetrators of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Enables readers with no law-enforcement background to understand the painstaking work of criminal investigations.
Clement, John G., and Murray K. Marks. Computer-Graphic Facial Reconstruction. New York: Academic Press, 2005. Focuses on a variety of approaches to computer-aided identification of deceased persons based on skull structure.
Fridell, Ron. Forensic Science. Minneapolis: Lerner, 2007. Brief volume intended for young readers includes an outstanding chapter on identification that describes methods of forensic facial reconstruction.
Gibson, Lois, and Deanie Francis Mills. Faces of Evil: Kidnappers, Murderers, Rapists, and the Forensic Artist Who Puts Them Behind Bars. Liberty Corner, N.J.: New Horizon Press, 2005. Interesting volume intended for a general audience discusses the work of Gibson, a forensic artist, on thirteen individual cases.
Taylor, Karen T. Forensic Art and Illustration. Boca...
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Composite Drawing (World of Forensic Science)
Composite drawing is the most widely known application of forensic art. Composite drawing uses descriptions given by witnesses to create a drawing that is a useful tool for identifying or eliminating a suspect. A composite drawing is not intended to be a portrait of an individual, but more of a two-dimensional likeness that is a visual record of the witness' recollections.
Creating a composite drawing requires skill that goes beyond the technical. The artist must also be able to interview and relate to the witness, eliciting valuable information that will form the basis of the drawing. A composite drawing is made in three stages. First, the artist will block out the facial proportionshether the suspect has a long chin, for instance, or a wide forehead. Then they will fill in shapes of facial characteristics, such as a bulbous nose or thin lips. Finally, shading is used to create facial form and texture.
Composite drawing is a two-way process. The artist encourages the victim or witness to look at the drawing at all stages of its progress. Not until they are satisfied that the drawing is the best possible representation of their recollections can it be considered completed. Sometimes, the very process of talking to the artist will bring up other important facts and memories from the witness. The drawing can be a powerful corroboration of a witness statement.
The advantage of a composite drawing is that it can be widely circulatedn newspapers, on message boards, or by fax or email to interested individuals. Composite drawings help involve the public in the search for a missing person, a suspect, or a fugitive. In one example, Stephen Mancusi, an experienced forensic artist with the New York Police Department, worked with a rape victim who had been attacked in the lobby of her apartment building. It was thought the attacker was a serial rapist loose in Manhattan who had attacked four women in their twenties at knife point. Mancusi and the fourth victim together produced a sketch of the suspect that was widely distributed throughout the city. A Bronx Assistant District Attorney saw the poster a short
Composite drawings can be applied to a wide range of crimesrom shoplifting to homicide. Often kits are used to create the drawing. The Identikit approach uses a collection of noses, eyebrows, and other facial features to get the best fit to the witness description. Photofit pictures are created by putting together a picture from facial features drawn from a photographic library. The witness can pick out facial features of their suspect, including those from individuals of various ethnic origins, from such library collections. Advanced computer techniques allow synthesis of information from several witnesses, even those who only had a partial view. However the picture is generated, it is the skill and experience of the forensic artist, along with their empathy with witnesses that are still the keys to the success of the technique.
Composite drawing relies upon witness statements, but there are related techniques that use skeletal remains or photographs. There are computer programs that can create two or three-dimensional likenesses from skull bones. This helps identify missing people and murder victims. Photographs and sketches can also be aged. A photo of a child who went missing or was abducted many years ago can be used to create a picture of how they may look in the present day. To do this, the forensic artist uses knowledge of the complex patterns of craniofacial growth to reveal how the child turns into an adult.
Similar techniques can be applied to the aging of adults to help identify fugitives, using anatomical knowledge of how the human face ages. It is also possible to change features such as hair color and add spectacles or facial hair in case the individual is in disguise. In 1991 forensic artist Karen Taylor used aging of a picture to help catch the Cuban fugitive Virgilio Paz Romero, who had been on the run for 15 years. He was wanted for the murder of the Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier. When he was caught, he was even wearing the red shirt that Taylor had predicted.
SEE ALSO Anthropology; Anthropometry; Missing children.