Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Art

The Facial Identification Specialist

Polly Klaas
Polly Klaas (AP)

Polly Klaas invited two girlfriends over for a pajama party.  It was a pretty evening on October 1, 1993 in Petaluma, California, where she lived.  The three girls played quietly in Polly's room, aware that her mother had already gone to bed.  Then around 10:00 p.m., a large man who smelled of alcohol suddenly came in through an open window and threatened them with a knife.

He quickly bound Polly's two friends and then carried her off into the night.  The girls were utterly terrified, but they managed to free themselves and call 911. They described the man to the operator and said that he'd worn a yellow bandanna tied around his head.  Then they alerted Polly's mother.

The crime scene investigation revealed that the abductor had left a palm print in the room.  That would help, but they needed a good description from the girls.

These two frightened girls did their best to supply police sketch artist Ralph Pata with enough details for a composite drawing, so that a "wanted" poster could be made and distributed throughout the state.  Pata's method was standard.  Using an array of images from a police book with over 900 faces, the victims were to match them to their memories.  From eyes to noses to hairlines, they kept picking until Pata had enough to sketch a whole face.  He also included the bandanna.

Unfortunately, despite a massive effort, Polly's abductor was not immediately caught.

A week or so went by, so Jeanne Boylan came into the case.  She specialized in getting victims of high trauma to recall details.  She herself had once been the victim of violence and she never forgot how hard it was to get investigators to listen to what she was saying.  She also felt that their suggestions and questions had been intrusive.  Because of that experience, she developed a technique that is different from many other sketch artists, in part because it's not a composite technique and in part because she works from a psychological angle.  That means she asks questions that other artists might not think to ask, she attends to the victim's or witness's needs, and she stays away from specific feature identification, preferring to work with general shapes.  (It should be noted that there are other artists who also pay attention to victim psychology, but it's not the norm.)

Her technique is to engage crime victims like Polly's friends in unrelated conversation about their lives and then mix questions about their traumatic experience throughout.  That "protects" the memory's vividness, allowing the person to feel safe while bringing it forth.  Less anxiety for the victim means more useful information for Boylan.  She also avoids direct and obvious questions about the shape of some facial feature, because it's a rare person who can recall specific featureseven on someone they know.  Direct suggestion also has the power to reshape a memory, and those initial memories of the event need to be guarded the way police guard a fingerprint or DNA evidence.  While Boylan's approach is time-consuming and requires patience, she gets results: She says that her portraits are more specific than generic renderings, which means a better chance for identification.

What Boylan knows is that eyewitnesses are often anguished over their inability to recall everything.  They want to help, but they sense the frustration of law enforcement that need to get moving on the case---especially if there's some chance that a kidnap victim is still alive.  These two girls realized that anything they called up could make all the difference, which put them under tremendous pressure.  Everything had happened so fast and they'd been so scared. 

Nevertheless, it's the trauma, Boylan believes, that holds the key.  Emotional trauma seals the memory into the subconscious.  The mind encodes the memory and then protects, sealing it in such a way as to prevent having to relive it.  That means it's Boylan's job to coax it out, as she did with Polly's friends.

Boylan worked with them for hours, giving them Play-Dough to reduce anxiety and help bring forth memory.  While the girl shaped the clay, Boylan sketched.  The girl started to talk, adding further detail.  After several hours, they finally came up with the face of a man with coarse, wavy hair, wrinkles, and a mustache and beard.

"I listen," Boylan says, "and I sketch what I hear."

Sketch and photo of Richard Allen Davis
Sketch and photo of Richard Allen Davis (AP)

About six weeks later, Richard Allen Davis was arrested.  He'd been identified from the palm print, which was on file because he'd been convicted of kidnapping twice before and was currently on parole.  Since the sketch matched his mug shots, it helped to narrow the search and close in on him.  When caught, he confessed.

It turned out that two Sonoma County deputies had actually helped Davis out of a ditch that night - and at that point, it's possible that Polly was still alive.  No one is sure, but Davis did drive her to a secluded spot north of San Francisco, raped her and strangled her.  That much is known.

On December 4, he led investigators to her body.  In June 1996, he was convicted of eight criminal counts, including kidnapping and first-degree murder.  While he smirked, the jury sentenced him to death.

After that, although it did not actually lead to the arrest, Boylan's work got more attention.

The sketch of the Unabomber suspect
The sketch of the Unabomber suspect (AP)

Seven years later, Boylan was invited to see what she could do.  The witness still managed to recall good detailaffirming Boylan's belief in the sealed memory.  She made a sketch that was so good, according to some reports, that Ted Kaczynski, who was later arrested and charged with the bombings, broke his nose to change his appearance.

From sketches to sculpture, another forensic artist, Karen T. Taylor, talks about the wide range of requests that people in her profession can get.

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