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Forensic Artists Use Talent To Solve Crimes


Hi. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Paul Raeburn.

Now we look at the science and the art behind a particular kind of crime solving. When we watch crime reports on the nightly news, you know the images you see: a sketch of a criminal wanted for a burglary, a missing child's photo which has be aged to account for the years since the child was last seen, or a reconstruction of the face of an unidentified murder victim. All of these images are the work of forensic artists. It's a tricky trade, there aren't too many of them. These folks help identify victims and capture criminals, balancing art, science, and detective work all at the same time.

For the rest of the hour, we will talk to an artist and an anthropologist about how art can help solve crimes.

Give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. Tweet us @scifri.

Now let me introduce my guest. Karen Taylor, a forensic artist, a fine artist -that is, an artist of fine arts - and an educator. She was an instructor in forensic art for the FBI for 22 years and is a long-term contributor to "America's Most Wanted." She's also the author of the textbook "Forensic Art and Illustration." Thanks for being with us.

Ms. KAREN TAYLOR (Forensic Artist): Hello, Paul. Nice to meet you. Thanks for having me.

RAEBURN: Nice to meet you. And Mary Manhein, director of the Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services Laboratory at Louisiana State University, and a professional in residence in the Department of Anthropology. She's also the author of two books about her years in the field, "The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist," and "Trail of Bones." Welcome to the program, Madam Bone Lady.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Professor MARY MANHEIN (Louisiana State University): Thank you, Paul. It's good to be here.

RAEBURN: So we want to talk about these drawings, which we've all seen on TV and, I don't know, in the post office and all over the place all our lives. And I'm going to start right out by expressing my skepticism. I never believed these things could really work. How could somebody describe to you something they'd seen possibly in a moment of high emotion and how would you be able to translate that into something that actually looked like the person who's being sought? Karen Taylor, can you really do this kind of thing? Come on. You can give me the truth here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TAYLOR: Well, admittedly, it is an imperfect process, at times an esoteric process. But indeed, it has worked time and time again and has proven to be a really valuable tool in the - in crime fighting, in the law enforcement arena. I'm inclined to ask you something like, do you remember where you were when you got the news that Princess Diana had died? Can you tell me where you were?

RAEBURN: You know, I can't.

Ms. TAYLOR: Or how about when the space shuttle crashed? Or...

RAEBURN: I know when the space shuttle blew up. I know where - I was at work and I was immediately jumping in to cover it. So I remember that very well, as matter of fact.

Ms. TAYLOR: Well, the point I was going to make is you could probably tell me about those issues in your life or those times in your life where there was a traumatic event and the memories become inextricably associated. You could probably tell me where you were seated. You might even tell me what you were doing with your hands, what you were tasting, smelling, hearing. But if I ask you about the day before or the day after, you couldn't tell me much. So that's sort of how this process works when it comes to the composite imagery part of it. There's lots of different aspects of forensic art. But memory definitely is affected by the amount of stress, the amount of violence, trauma related to the associated event.

RAEBURN: So the now, one of the things that we've heard from memory research is that - I'm sure I don't have this exactly right - but that, you know, if you experience something when you're frightened, then you're maybe more likely to remember that better when you're frightened again, or you know, if you're in similar emotional circumstances, that would be something that might help recall those memories.

Ms. TAYLOR: I think that it might be, you know, a reference to reinstating the context of the event, a technique some interviewers use to pull back...

RAEBURN: Let me stop you for just a moment. We'll pick it up.

Ms. TAYLOR: Sure.

RAEBURN: We have to take a very short break.

(Soundbite of music)

RAEBURN: From NPR, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Paul Raeburn. We're talking this hour about science and forensic art. My guests are Karen Taylor, a renowned forensic artist and the author of the textbook "Forensic Art and Illustration"; and Mary Manhein, director of the Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services Laboratory at Louisiana State University, the author of "The Bone Lady" and the "Trail of Bones."

So Karen Taylor, I guess what I was asking was when you interview people to do these kinds of drawings, do you have to get them in a particular state of mind or - what do you do to prepare them to get the best information from them?

Ms. TAYLOR: Well, first, I should address maybe a little bit about the expectations of composite sketches. There's a friend of mine, an anatomist named Dr. Robert George, who has said that forensic art is actually portrait art minus a tangible subject. So you have to realize that we're tackling a very difficult task here. You also have to remember that there can be any number of complications along the way. When a face is seen by a crime victim or a witness to a crime, there's that period of encoding the face in memory, that acquisition period. There's a period of time in which the face is stored in memory. And then the sketch artist comes in at the time when we have to try and retrieve that encoded and stored memory. So difficulties can occur anywhere along the path of that process.

Also, we have to consider that there are variables in the witnesses' degree of involvement with the crime. And each interview has a different dynamic. So it's hard to simply say, you do this, this and this for any given interview. For instance, somebody could be very actively involved, or they could be actually a crime victim who was physically assaulted and injured. They might be more passively involved, having just maybe viewed an incident, but they don't have that adrenaline pump, not being personally threatened. Or they may be totally inactive, having no knowledge that a crime has actually occurred, that they'd seen anything of significance.

So to try and answer, the interview varies considerably depending upon the complications involved and depending upon traits of the witnesses. Is this an elderly person? Is this a very young person? Is this someone with a language barrier? Is this someone who has seen a face at night or at a distance? And all those things have to be taken into account as I prepare for an interview.

RAEBURN: Now, Mary Manhein, how does anthropology - how does the science of anthropology contribute to this kind of work? And tell us a little bit about what you do.

Prof. MANHEIN: Well, as you noted, Paul, we are the FACES Lab, and as forensic anthropologists who work with many, many different states, we often are called upon to create an image from just the bone. So we're asked to do 3-D facial reconstructions on those skulls of persons who are unidentified, and perhaps that's the last hope for a lot of people, a lot of law enforcement and families who want to get these people identified.

RAEBURN: So this could be a murder victim, a missing person, all kinds of things.

Prof. MANHEIN: It's going to be - right. It's going to be someone who's missing from somewhere, because this male, female, young person, elderly person is unidentified. So we use our science in anthropology to determine the ancestry, or some people say race. We look for sex, we look for age. And then we have special tissue depth markers that we place across...

RAEBURN: Hang on a second. Before you get to the markers - race, sex and age.

Prof. MANHEIN: Right.

RAEBURN: How do you tell those things from bones?

Prof. MANHEIN: Well, age, if we have the entire skeleton - there's 206 bones in the human skeleton - and if we have the entire skeleton, it's really great to use the hip bones. For an adult, the hip bones are the best bones in the body for determining both sex and age of an individual, because there's areas across the hip bone that change their morphology or their appearance as we age. And those standards that have been developed for determining the age of someone have come about through observing cadavers, persons of known age. That...

RAEBURN: So what - something is changing shape or is bone growing or...

Prof. MANHEIN: The bone is deteriorating.

RAEBURN: What's going on?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MANHEIN: We're breaking down, Paul. We're breaking down.

RAEBURN: We're falling apart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MANHEIN: After about 18 or so, it's downhill all the way.

RAEBURN: Oh, boy. I knew I was sorry I asked that question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MANHEIN: So there's two surfaces, the pubic symphysis and the auricular surface on the hip bones that change their appearance, because they do kind of wear out and wear down with age, you might say. And we can use those to help us age someone.

If we don't have the entire skeleton, then we can use the skull. We can look at breakdown in the other bones. We can look for what are called osteophytes, which are signs of arthritis. So there's indicators all across the skeleton which help us with the age of the person. And then as I said, sex can be determined by the shape of the hip bone.

RAEBURN: And so the - what about race?

Prof. MANHEIN: Race, typically, is in our ancestry. We call it - sometimes, it's in the face as a general rule. We take measurements all across the skull. We also look at what are called morphoscopic features, which are non-metric features, non-measurable features, that tell us about populations. And ancestry or race is absolutely one of the hardest questions we have to answer, but it's one of the most important things to answer when you're trying to rebuild a face. And in actuality, it's the substrate of the skull, the architecture of the skull that guides us.

But we will say, as a general rule, we believe this person could be a white individual or a black or African-American individual, or perhaps Hispanic, Native American. And then we are able to give this information to our facial reconstructionist. In our case, it's generally Irene Vere(ph) who works with me, who is just a phenomenal reconstructionist. And she takes that information, and that will guide her in determining how wide to make the nose, how deep-set, or perhaps to make the eyes, the morphology plays a role there, or how to create the mouth, the ears. So there's features on the skull that guide her. And then we also place tissue depth markers on the skull at very specific areas, cut to very specific links and millimeters that help guide her in developing or recreating the tissue.

RAEBURN: Now, is this normally done in the context of some sort of police investigation?

Prof. MANHEIN: Right. Law enforcement comes to us, and they say, we have a case, Mary. We have no idea who this is. Can you help us with it? So we'll do our regular profile, and then if we have no luck in putting that profile out to the public, we will go ahead and do a facial reconstruction. And we will often times publicize that, either through the local media or through our website called identifyla.lsu.edu or through the national website called identifyus.org, and that's through the National Association of Medical Examiners.

And this site, the main - the national one and our site are increasing in numbers every day. So people can go to the national site and they can come to our site and look up images that we've created on people who are unidentified, and they can also look up information on missing people or query different states to find out about all of these cases that we're trying to resolve across the country.

RAEBURN: I was going to ask you why you were called the bone lady, but I'm starting to get it. The - who gave you that name, anyway?

RAEBURN: Law enforcement gave me that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAEBURN: I was going to...

RAEBURN: They would come, they would call on LSU and they would say, is that lady there, you know, that lady that fools with those bones? We need her really bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MANHEIN: The bone lady, can you get her for us? So that's why I named my book that because that's what they call me.

RAEBURN: Right. Now, Karen Taylor, the police and law enforcement people are a pretty skeptical bunch. They really need to see evidence before they'll believe anything, I think. Do they buy these sketches? Do they buy into this? Do they think it's helpful?

Ms. TAYLOR: It varies around the country. Certainly, once a police agency or a detective sees a couple of successful cases, they're convinced that there is some potential value to their investigation with this work. So nothing encourages like success. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TAYLOR: ...it just takes one good hit, as we call it, and they keep coming back.

RAEBURN: Now you've had a pretty good track record with this - all kinds of different agencies you've work with.

Ms. TAYLOR: Well, I've been very fortunate to have the most rewarding career -personally rewarding - imaginable. I worked for almost 20 years at the state police, the Texas Department of Public Safety here, but also for other agencies around the country, and in fact, outside the country. But there's still is, I believe, a lot of lack of understanding about this field. It is deceptively complex - both the part about identifying criminal faces as well as the unidentified deceased faces.

There are certain things - as I know that you're interested in the psychology of it - there are certain things that are intriguingly similar that come into play for both types of cases. For instance, when you see a face, we tend to think that we recognize someone by the shape of their lips or their eyes. And in fact, the studies in the cognitive psychology field tend to prove out that that's not quite exactly what happens. Rather, we are encoding the array of the features, the holistic property of the way your faces light out. When you see someone walking to you that, you know, maybe they're a block away, the reason you recognize them may well be - you can't see every eyelash or every freckle, but you can see the layout of their face. And that's what we're trying to capture from words alone in a composite sketch.

The good news is with skulls, as Mary was discussing, when we try to use all our various formulas for developing the features to create a skull-to-face reconstruction. That is given, that wonderful holistic property that layout, that all-important layout of the facial features that overrides everything else, it seems, for triggering recognition and triggering the memory of a face is given in the skull. So even if we don't get everything absolutely perfect in the facial reconstruction, whether it's being done on the skulls by - as a drawing or as a sculpture, if we can put out something that shows the layout, that spatial arrangement, it may well work. And another thing that seems to go on is that family members who are searching for a missing loved one seem to be able to extrapolate, seem to be able to interpret in a way that maybe others just glancing at a item of forensic art and don't see the resemblance to the target subject. If you're looking for someone who's missing, you may see something that others don't.

RAEBURN: Right. Let me take a question from - this is - I'm Paul Raeburn, I'm sorry. This - from - this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Let me take a question from Luke(ph) in Kingsport, Tennessee. Luke, are you with us?

LUKE (Caller): Yes, sir.

RAEBURN: Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Go ahead.

LUKE: Yes. I actually had a question, and probably for both of the ladies. (Technical difficulty)

RAEBURN: He's looking - yeah, I think we lost Luke, unfortunately. He wanted to ask about if you use a celebrity face as a sort of a comparison, whether that kind of thing might be helpful.

Ms. TAYLOR: It's actually relatively common, in doing the composite sketching process, that the mind seems to seek something familiar when trying to retrieve a facial memory. And it's relatively common for a witness to say, hey, he reminded me of so and so, and that maybe someone they know, but it may well be a celebrity face. So I actually have, for many years - and I think other artist do as well, kept files of celebrity faces to try and pin down (unintelligible).

RAEBURN: Really, is - does a person look a little bit like this one or something? Yeah.

Ms. TAYLOR: Yes.

RAEBURN: Yeah. Okay, does Lady Gaga come up very often in that kind of an investigation?

Ms. TAYLOR: Not for me.

RAEBURN: Not for you. Okay.

Ms. TAYLOR: Thank goodness.

RAEBURN: Well, I'm sorry to say we're out of time. I've had a great time talking about this. My guests have been Karen Taylor, a renowned forensic artist, fine artist and educator. She's also the author of the textbook "Forensic Art and Illustration." Also, Mary Manhein, aka The Bone Lady, director of the FACES Lab at Louisiana State University and the author of two books, "The Bone Lady" and "Trail of Bones." Thanks for being with us.

Prof. MANHEIN: Thank you.

Ms. TAYLOR: Thanks, Paul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.