In the sample lesson plan: Identification, Eyewitness Evidence: A Trainer’s Manual for Law Enforcement (2000). I’m drawn to procedure #3 of developing and using composites images. The line reads, Unless part of the procedure, avoid showing the witness any photos immediately prior to development of the composite. Showing photos to the witness immediately prior to the procedure could influence the description he/she provides.
I recently had a conversation with a well respected commander of investigations and he admittedly revealed that he was uninformed about certain aspects of forensic art. I believe that a lot of administrators are hesitant to talk about their forensic art resources with any confidence. Many of these administrators might benefit from reviewing these manuals about Eyewitness Evidence and determining the best practices for their department. Unfortunately, some of these well intentioned manuals might offer some administrators even more interesting questions.
For instance when you read procedure #3 and it starts with “Unless part of the procedure, avoid showing the witness any photos...” You have to ask yourself, should the forensic artist show photos in order to create the composite sketch? What is the danger in showing photos to the witness prior to developing the composite sketch?
In the book, EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY: CIVIL AND CRIMINAL, 5th edition, Elizabeth F. Loftus, James M. Doyle, Jennifer E. Dysart, © 2013, Matthew Bender & Company, Inc., they cover the latest information about Facial Composites and give us some insight into the latest eyewitness evidence research as it relates to composite sketches. In it you find that the latest findings show that most composite systems turn out rather poor likenesses of suspect sketches. The data has been collected over the last 30 years and looks at both traditional and computerized composite systems. They also talk about “unconscious transference”. This is where the witness sees a person in one circumstance and is convinced that it is the same person in another situation. Many misidentifications have been made where eyewitnesses were shown a photo of a suspect and then later see the same photo in the photo array and choose the same suspect out of familiarity and not necessarily from memory. We can take this logic into the composite art setting as well. If you begin your composite sketch session by showing your eyewitness a catalog of faces, you risk transferring these images into their memory and thus confuse them into thinking they are familiar because of the incident.
Another opinion from leading researchers informs us about the discrepancy between how we process faces (holistically) and how we create the composite sketches (feature based). Scientists believe that we encode faces as a whole, but we are asked to create the composite sketch by asking the witness to build the sketch from separate features. If you think about the standard methodology for creating a composite sketch you see that building the sketch from the features is at the foundation of the process. From Identi-Kit to FACES (software) they all are based on the premise that the eyewitness will view images (features) and select the ones that remind them of their suspect. This painstaking process relies on the eyewitness to maintain a focused adherence to the likeness of the suspect. With each feature viewed and bypassed the eyewitness is counted on to deliver on their confidence. This viewing of features reminds me of the mugshot searches that are conducted by police when they have no leads and they hope the eyewitness is able to recognize a photo.
The research shows a host of other issues with mugshot searches: retroactive interference; unconscious transference; and commitment. In retroactive interference, post-crime information, in this case viewing mugshots (photos of suspects), weakens or interferes with the witness’ memory of the actual perpetrator. Even though the research shows that merely viewing the photos will not lessen the accuracy for identification in a subsequent photo lineup. However, if we look at this from the composite art procedures, we know that the eyewitness is not only being asked to view the features (sometimes full faces and some blocked out features) but they are directed to make choices. I believe that this back and forth task may bring about some memory contamination and furthermore may offer some issues of unconscious transference as some features or faces become familiar in the task of selecting features.
When you compare the standard methodology of forensic art to my Compositure® technique you understand why I chose to eliminate the use of reference images altogether. I have taken it upon myself to look at the research and findings related to Eyewitness Misidentification and apply it to the forensic art discipline. The fact that witnesses are meeting with forensic artists everyday and interviewing them about their memory should give investigative administrators some pause and ask, what are the best practices? Is my forensic artist adhering to the latest findings on eyewitness misidentification research?