Drawing without a net?

by Charles T. Jackson


            With the popularity of the crime scene and courtroom drama, average citizens have become aware of the potential for drama in the courtroom. What they might find surprising is the fact that the “drama” depicted on the television regarding courtroom testimony, is not all that different from the reality. Strategies regarding eliciting testimony from expert witnesses do in fact focus on shortcomings in the handling of crime scene processing, collection and submission of evidence, and the processes used in the development of many different admissible results from photographs to DNA. In many cases that do go to trial, adherence to standard operating procedures guide the investigator through the gauntlet of questioning without incident. Some Composite Artists however, still choose to throw caution to the wind, and prepare an image with essentially no answers to the questions regarding the foundation of the image.


In the field of composite image making there are generally three schools of thought on the use of reference images. There are those who do, those who sometimes do, and those that don’t use them at all.  The “sometimes” and “never use them” artists have a myriad a reasons why they do and do not use them, and feel strongly that it is fine as along as the witness is satisfied with the final outcome. But in a litigious society such as ours, it is just a matter of time until we find one of these artists in a courtroom attempting to explain away their possible influence in a final image, and cannot due to serious gaps in their process that allows for this type of allegation. How will this artist respond to the use of facial features drawn without the input of a witness or victim to create what is referred to as a “base face”. How does this artist separate him or herself from the facial features used even if they were placed on the page after the interview was completed? Does that artist leave him or herself open the allegation that they had, for whatever reason, a “preconceived notion” regarding the suspect image? Or even worse, is the artist attempting to direct the image due to knowledge of a suspect in the case? Are these questions likely to occur? No they are not. There is very little testimony required in the field of composite image making. But to continue to practice a process that allows for scrutiny, and lengthy discussion during a prosecution, regardless of the statistical frequency,  is simply irresponsible and unprofessional. How can a determination of “expert” be confidently ruled when the artist is simply unable to demonstrate visually how he / she arrived at the image in question.


In a conversation with Lt. Roy Paschal, of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, I found that he has testified to approximately five percent of the composite images that he has completed over his 28-year career. He said that very often the testimony is relatively routine, but does recall a case where the defense required him to explain in deep detail each and every facial feature used in the image. Being an artist that uses, and documents reference images, he was prepared. He likened the level of preparedness required to that of the Crime Scene Photographer. The photographer may only ever testify to his / her taking of a particular picture or series of photographs, but he or she is prepared at al times to present the processes and settings that went into making those images to make them admissible in a trial.

But are courtroom testimony issues all a composite artist has to be concerned with? Composite artists are open to the scrutiny of their peers and public with the publication of each and every composite developed in a critical case.  As a result those peers and civilians are in a position to recognize the fact that sometimes a series of drawings look very similar. A focused detective may conclude that the cases may be connected. The other side of the coin is the detective that openly discusses the possibility that the artist is just reproducing the same face time after time.  An artist that does not use reference images is defenseless against this type of inference. An artist that uses reference images, and carefully documents witness guided deviations, is prepared at any given time to demonstrate what step by step process was used in each case, what reference images were selected by the witness, and what if any deviations were required by the witness from the selected images. This ability could be the difference between being a composite artist that is able to make significant contributions to criminal cases for an entire career, or being an artist whose image outcome is consistently questionable.


Reference images used should involve a very diverse selection of features that include ancestry, sex and weight concerns, as well as the gamut of different shapes and sizes of facial feature possibilities.  What source of reference images the artist uses is entirely a personal choice. Over the years artists have used old mug shots, laminated pictures cut out of the newspapers and magazines, and of course the FBI Facial Identification Catalog (FIC). The FBI FIC has been available to law enforcement officers for many years and has served well as an organized source of facial features for males of several races. The shortage of male images of some ethnicities, and a complete disregard of female features leaves the FIC slightly shy of complete considering the diversity of criminals presenting in this day and age. But the FBI is reportedly very near completion of a new and improved facial imaging catalog that includes men and women of many ethnic backgrounds and accessories commonly worn by today’s criminal element. As always, release of the FIC  will be strictly limited by the FBI, but full availability criteria has yet to be announced.


Documentation of deviations varies, but overall should just represent copies of the image used, specificity of the feature used from the image, and deviations from the selected image. E.g. The victim / witness stated that the suspect feature was slightly narrower than the feature in the selected image. With the FBI FIC, the recording of the number associated with the selected image, and notation of deviations if any are indicated. A standardized form for organizing the collected information can be very simple to prepare in today’s word processing software formats, and can also be adjusted according to the needs of the individual artist.  An organized form makes referencing the initially selected images easier to find, and also allows for a more organized rechecking of the features when the image is developing.

An artist constructing a composite image using features selected by the witness or victim as a guide will very often be initially closer to the basic structure of the suspect image than the artist starting an image without. The reference image guided  “base face” will generally require fewer corrections and leaves the artists to get right into the shading of the image rather than making feature by feature corrections.   The time savings can be compared to baking a cake with all of the ingredients handy, as compared to going back and forth for each individual ingredient. Having made thorough notes during the interview also gives the artist the opportunity to check and be sure that each selected feature had been as accurately drawn as possible, prior to finalizing of the image. The ability to look back and compare is the difference between the artists that use the reference images and the artists that do not.  It is very possible to completely forget a feature like facial hair or glasses when you have not taken sufficient notes. The witness has to now remind the artist of these features, or they might be forgotten all together. These types of omissions weigh heavily on the credibility of the artist and can be avoided simply by thorough note taking.


As with any other discipline encompassed under the umbrella of forensics, a professional composite artist must be prepared at all times to competently explain his / her process, and demonstrate how they arrived at the final outcome in each and every case prepared. The future of the field, and the continued confidence in final composite images depends on it.