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Composite Drawings : Capturing the Suspect on Paper

October 13, 1985|BOB BAKER | Times Staff Writer

Newspapers published Macris' drawing, and police got a call from a woman who said the drawing looked much like a neighbor. A few days later, Lawrence Singleton, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Macris' hurried sketch, was arrested and later convicted.

"When you saw the guy's mug shot and you saw the drawing, it was like he had sat for a portrait," said Dennis Joyce, an FBI agent in Sacramento who was not involved in the case but who, like many law enforcement officials, is familiar with it.

A huge bulletin board in a corner of Macris' studio in San Jose police headquarters is filled with hits--detailed pencil drawings of suspects, each accompanied by a quite similar-looking police mug shot of a captured man.

Yet of the 400-plus cases in which Macris makes drawings for his department and 15 to 20 other Bay Area agencies each year, an arrest will be made only 5% to 10% of the time, he said.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 15, 1985 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
A caption accompanying a story in Sunday's edition incorrectly stated that Los Angeles Police Department artist Fernando Ponce drew a number of differing composite sketches in the Night Stalker case. As reported in the story, the first sketches were drawn by other law enforcement agency artists. Ponce drew the last and most widely circulated sketch of the suspect.

"A lot of composites have one or two strong similarities but then strong dissimilarities," one prosecutor said. "It's a matter of witnesses noticing one thing and not the other."

And that's the problem.

Memory Deteriorates

Artists and human behavior researchers note that a person's ability to store and retrieve a detailed memory deteriorates under environmental factors that characterize many crimes: bad lighting, brief glimpses of the suspect, rapid action.

Memory also erodes under stress, and a crime victim sitting across a table from a police artist is often under strong and conflicting forces. On one hand, he may feel pressure to remember details, believing that the capture of a criminal is riding on the precision of his description. And at the same time, he may be unconsciously trying to repress the traumatic memory of the attack.

"Sometimes they will replace the image of a suspect with one they're more comfortable with," said Jean Boyland, the Portland Police Bureau's artist who said she took college courses in psychology, sociology and counseling to improve her skills.

"Rape victims will describe their attackers being much better-looking than they are," she said. "There's a process called subconscious transference, when they begin to confabulate features that aren't part of that person."

The composite also tends to be less accurate when the victim and criminal are of different races. Studies have found that whites, in particular, have trouble remembering details about black faces.

In predominantly white Huntington Beach, Droz recalled, police were sure the same black man had committed a number of armed robberies at shopping centers. But in interviewing witnesses to prepare a composite, "I got some pretty wide variations," Droz said.

'Unreliable Evidence'

"Let's face it," Ponce said. "The eyewitness is the most incomplete and unreliable evidence there is."

But the biggest reason that composites have flaws, according to a psychology professor who specializes in human perception, is that the way an artist tries to develop a composite is at odds with the way people think.

"They work with what could be described as a bottom-up procedure," psychologist said Gary Wells of the University of Alberta in Canada. "What the person is required to do is isolate the features, the nose, eyes, brow, chin. It's pretty clear that people aren't able to do that.

"Normally, when an eyewitness encodes a face into memory, he's not putting it in at the feature level."

Rather, it is an overall impression not easily verbalized. "You can have a person try to reconstruct their mother or father and even then they can't pick out the right nose," Wells said.

To overcome these obstacles, Macris said, he brings to each sketch "the philosophy that the human mind has in it a hundred times more than we usually get out of it" and the "assumption that the entire image is there" in the mind of even the most traumatized witness.

"I do the interview until I exhaust the process," he said.

One-Hour Sessions

By contrast, Ponce, who has developed a deep interest in psychology during his 13 years as an Los Angeles police artist, prides himself on limiting most of his sessions to an hour, something of a necessity for a man who estimates that he draws at least 700 composites a year. ("More than an hour, you're impairing the witness.") He contends that even the best eyewitness can accurately recall no more than 13% of the variables that make up a face. "A competent artist can depict 98% to 100% of that 13%, and sometimes that's enough to help a detective recognize a face," he said.

After a basic face and some features are established, the give-and-take process of refining it begins. Because some people lack sufficient vocabulary ("they don't know what 'sideburns' are," Macris said) or want so badly to help the artist that they become too impressionable, non-verbal cues and the artist's discretion become important.

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