Monday, December 14, 2009

Forensic Art 101

Robin Burcell, an FBI-trained forensic artist, has worked as a police officer, detective and hostage negotiator. THE BONE CHAMBER is her latest international thriller about an FBI forensic artist. Her first thriller, FACE OF A KILLER, received a starred review from Library Journal. She is the author of four previous novels. View the video trailer at her website at: Or on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for inviting me this week. Below are CJ's questions:

What kind of training in art did you have before you went to the FBI training?

I come from a long line of artists. According to my maternal grandmother, my grandfather, who dabbled in cartoons, was courted by Walt Disney himself to do artwork. My grandfather, a well-respected sports editor for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner at the time, declined. My grandmother was a portrait artist, as was my mother. Some of that talent trickled down. I took some art in college, did some portraits of my own (mostly pastel and charcoal) and when my department figured out that they could tap into that skill, I was sent to San Jose PD to study with their police artist before being sent to the FBI Academy.

How much did they teach you?

The FBI course covered composite art (sketching from a witness description) and forensic art (working from corpses or skulls). In addition, we learned age progression and photo retouching. We were doing “computer” Photoshop before it was even a twinkle in Adobe’s eye. When I finished the course, I actually used my newfound skills to retouch a photograph of my daughter in her ballet recital dress, fixing a sleeve that had fallen--much more pleasant than sketching bad guys.

Was some of it simple listening/interpretation skills about handling witnesses in crisis?

It goes beyond the basic listening/interpretation skills. Working with emotionally traumatized victims or witnesses is only one small part of the process. A good artist will also employ cognitive interview skills. Essentially an artist will end up walking that victim back through the crime completely, which can lead to even more emotional trauma. One benefit is that often an artist will learn something new that the investigators didn’t catch in their first interview. Little details that might have escaped them--things like dust on a suspect’s shoes, which meant he’d walked through a nearby field as opposed to the paved street in the other direction, or the color or design on his socks, which could be a detail that might come up later.

Did they teach you how to use the computer composite drawing programs or technical sketching or the like?

No. Back when I first trained, the computer model was only just being invented. In fact, the San Jose police artist who trained me was helping to actually develop the first computer sketch program. He showed me how it was going to work. I thought it was very cool, but realized (as did he) that there would be limitations. And let’s not forget the pre-computer composite “program” called the Identi-kit, which was what the first computer “sketch” programs were based on. These consisted of “pre-drawn” plastic film overlays of facial parts. Each sheet had a different part. The results were often horrendous, and cops ended up referring to them as “Mr. Potato Head-kits.”

Can you walk us through a case you worked on using your forensic artist skills?

One of my first forensic sketches was for neighboring agency, which was trying to identify a “floater,” a body that had been in the water too long. The victim’s identifying fingerprints had sloughed off, and all but a few strands of hair were left on her head from her time spent in the water. She had been shot between the eyes and stabbed numerous times in the chest. What they needed was to show a likeness of the woman to the public in hopes of making an identification, but showing a photo of a corpse was out of the question, especially one in this condition.

My job was to go out to the morgue to create a sketch (minus the fatal wounds). The sketch I could do, but coming up with her hairstyle when there were about three total strands left on her head was going to be tough. I had to deduce a hairstyle based on the length. One on the back was long, one on top was medium and one in front was short, which told me that she probably wore a layered style with bangs.

I completed the drawing, but no ID was made. About two years later, after the detectives had run out of leads, they ran my sketch on a TV crime show, hoping to turn up a new lead, and the girl was identified by her grandmother. The grandmother lived several cities away, which was why no one locally was ever able to identify the girl.

I used my experiences on this case (minus the two-year delay) in scenes from FACE OF A KILLER, where Special Agent Sydney Fitzpatrick has to go to the morgue to sketch a floater found in that book.

I hope you find this interesting enough to join me each day this week when I answer more questions on forensics, police work and other law enforcement pursuits. Feel free to ask questions, but do be patient (especially after Monday) as I work during the day (catching bad guys) and can’t get to the computer until the evening.


CJ Lyons said...

Thanks so much for joining us this week on CM! Wow, what a fascinating subject--I really appreciate your sharing your expertise!!!

Enjoy your week here!

Kelli Stanley said...

Robin, thank you so much for joining us on Criminal Minds this week and sharing your knowledge and wealth of experiences!

Hope you have a grand time as our Grand Master! :)


Sophie Littlefield said...

Hey Robin, So I'll go ahead and fess up now - I was intimidated by you before we actually met - your CV is so impressive and, dare I say, badass. That is an amazing story about the sketch you did of that poor woman...I can't imagine the emotional strength it must have taken to get through that...

Jen Forbus said...

Hi Robin!! This was fascinating. I love hearing your stories, and of course everyone knows I LOVED FACE OF A KILLER!

Can't wait to hear more this week.

Big Hugs,

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Robin, Hey!

This is too fun and too fascinating and I can't wait to hear more!!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

What an amazing use for artistic talent and sheer grit. Interesting to think that the sketch artist picks up on other details that the investigators miss, but obvious when one thinks about it.

Welcome to 7CriminalMinds! Hope you enjoy your week here!

Anonymous said...

Thanks everyone for the warm welcome!

Sophie, you crack me up! (about being intimidated.)

The sketch in the morgue was something that stayed with me for a long, long time. In fact it was quite a while before I could actually close my eyes and not see her face. I can still bring up the memory to this day, but thankfully with the passing of time, it now fades back to the recesses of my mind.

Shane Gericke said...

Hi, Robin, great story about identifying the child from your sketch--it's sad, yes, but must also be enormously gratifying, as it let the family KNOW. Good going.

A delight to see you here, as you're one of my fave people from The Book Beat. Thanks for joining our little tuna boat o'fun.

Dr. Mary Kennedy said...

Fabulous post, Robin. Interesting that artists pick up on details that others miss...when I do psych testing on clients with an artistic bent, I notice that they're usually "high scanners," noting every detail about their environment. Little things that "normals" would never even notice. Loved Face of a Killer and am halfway through The Bone Chamber, another winner!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the feedback. I had no idea about the "high scanner" aspect of artists, but that makes a lot of sense. Nice to have a name for it.

And glad you liked the books!