Sometimes the sketch looks like nothing like him

My appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997 was pretty memorable for me in a couple of ways. One - I was able to show America the issue of cross-race identification to the delight of Dr. Gary Wells (who was seated in the front row of the audience), and Two - my Compositure™ technique for interviewing eyewitnesses was on the air for all to see. In some respects my appearance on the show could have been a disaster, considering my eyewitness apologized for not doing a good job.

Here I am on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997. We're talking with Oprah about the sketch I drew of a man who came on the set and posed as a robber.

Here I am on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997. We're talking with Oprah about the sketch I drew of a man who came on the set and posed as a robber.

My flight into Chicago was pretty uneventful, it had been snowing the last few days so the change in temperature for me was rather dramatic. I was met by a limo driver displaying a sign that read: “Mr. Zamora," I motioned it was me and got some inquisitive looks from the people around me. The producers were pretty secretive about what the show was about. They told me I would just be asked to interview someone and come up with a sketch. I was never an avid Oprah show watcher, but I knew it was a big deal and I there would be a lot of people watching.

The next morning I met a producer of the show in the lobby and I was joined by four others as we piled into a large limousine. As we settled into our seats I met two other sketch artists, Kathleen Birnbaum and Terence Westbrook. They were both very friendly and began to tell me about how they got into forensic art. I believe Kathleen was from the Southwest, and Terence from a small town back east where he was also the police chief. We were all pretty excited and we exchanged ideas of what might be in store for us.

When we got to the studio we were escorted onto the main stage and there was Oprah. The producer briefed us and showed us where we would be seated. Oprah happened to be seated in my chair talking with her staff. I decided to have some fun before we got going and I walked over to Oprah and said, “You're in my seat," she looked at me and gave me a laugh. She said, you guys are the sketch artists and shook my hand. She thanked us for agreeing to come do the show and we got ushered off to our private offices to begin our secret interviews.

A producer came into my room while I was waiting and told me I would be meeting someone very soon and that I should just “do what you do” and conduct my sketch interview. She said that they would come in and video tape me sketching but that they would not interfere with my interview. I held my pad and had a couple pencils ready along with my eraser and I started warming up by drawing random faces. A few minutes later, my witness came through the door. Her name was Gail, she was very sweet and seemed pretty excited to be on the show. I told her that I had no idea what was going on other than I was asked to interview her about someone she had seen. I started my introduction to my interview and I began as I had hundreds of times before—except, in this case, there was a tv camera over my shoulder chronicling every stroke of my pencil. Athletes talk about being in the zone when they are at their peak performance in the game, I got in the zone and started my interview.

I encouraged Gail to be relaxed and not be concerned about creating a sketch that was “exact”. I reminded her that no one’s memory was exact and that we wanted a sketch that reminded her of the subject. She kept saying, “I can’t believe I’m on the Oprah Winfrey Show, I can’t wait until my kids see this!” The fact that she was distracted made for a challenging interview. As a sketch artist, I’ve dealt with the distractions of fear; embarrassment; and the lack of confidence; but the distraction of Oprah? This interview would be one I’d remember for years to come.

As we moved through the interview I was getting concerned that the subject looked like me. Although the hair was different I felt that the other features could be similar to mine. I remember asking her, does he look like me? She said, oh know, not at all. I sighed and wondered what I could do to make him look less like me. A few minutes passed and the door opened. The producer stepped in and asked to speak with Gail.  I was about to show her the sketch when she got called out into the hallway.  In the first part of my interview, I keep the witness from viewing the sketch until I complete my initial interview of features.  When she came back in, she said, “I think he had a mustache.”  The reality of Hollywood hit me right between my sketch pad and my eraser.  In the real world, I would have disregarded this new bit of information as unreliable, and I would have advised the lead detective to look into her statements further.  But this was the Oprah Show, and I had to move on with the new information.

I finished up the sketch and asked her if the sketch reminded her of the subject  She said yes and I refined the sketch with some minor shading.  Gail left the room and I walked outside with my sketch at my side.  I met the other two artists as they were finished with their interviews and we showed each other our sketches.  My sketch was the only one with a mustache!  Terence offered, “Wow, your sketch looks great.  I really thought our sketches would be similar.”  So did I. I thought to myself, either my witness was better or my sketch will be way off. At least their sketches were of men without mustaches and short hair.

We walked onto the state and the buzz of the audience was in the air.  Oprah looked at the camera and started to talk about the premise of the show.  For the first time, I realized what was going on.  As the video rolled, I could see that there had been a re-enactment of a purse snatch in the audience.  The male subject ran into the audience and grabbed the purse of an audience member and ran off stage.  I had interviewed hundreds of witnesses about crimes like this over the previous four years. I could see form the video that Gail was seated at the farthest corner of the stage left and in the back row. Not a great vantage point.

Oprah brought out the “purse snatcher” and he stood 10 feet in front of us smiling as the audience clapped.  Gail grabbed by arm and said, “I’m sorry!”.  My heart sank — my sketch looked nothing like the subject!

Take a look at the video here.

Tune in next time when I write about what I learned about perceptions from my witness and the audience.