Piecing Together an Identity

To help solve more crimes, one sheriff's office overhauled its forensics unit and brought a new technology on board


     "Your average anthropologist or forensic artist who does skull reconstructions would reduce the face down to a skull and use the standard method of clay or 2D reconstruction," says McMahon. However, he preferrs to use his "eye" as a forensic artist, in partnership with the new techs training on Photoshop, including interns.

     "Very few [agencies], if any, would attempt to recreate that face," says McMahon. "But we took it on."

     The subject's eyes were derived from a suspect photograph. As McMahon recalls, "The guy's name is David ... he raped three women and is standing trial right now. I was looking at David's booking photo and I said, 'Those are the eyes we've been searching for.'"

     This was the unit's first Photoshop postmortem. The person has not yet been identified; however, Broward County has very recently released the image via the Broward County Crime Stoppers, a tip line that offers cash rewards to anonymous tipsters.

Layer by layer

     Individuals within the department who already have a technical background are comfortable with delivering "drawings" using a computer platform.

     Patrice Muchow, an investigative analyst who works with Broward County detectives and its homicide unit, is accustomed to detecting the identity of an unknown person through fingerprints, tattoos and identifying marks. Now Muchow is refining her skills by training on Photoshop.

     "It's amazing what you can do," Muchow says of the technology. "We're strictly using the newest version [of Photoshop]."

     To arrive at a close match, Muchow and McMahon scour through stacks of booking photos and compare them to physical descriptions such as height, weight and facial features provided by the medical examiner.

     Muchow is very much like an artist, or someone who pieces together a puzzle. Only, she often has a limited number of pieces to work with.

     "I'll take the postmortem picture and use that as our base — the background layer," says Muchow. "Then I'll take the other pictures; the eyes, nose, etc. and put that over it. Finally we blend it and match the skin tones, because we want it to be as close as possible to a photograph, without it looking like a painting."

     Photoshop is more forgiving than the standard method of composite creation, as it's quicker to change something that may not be "quite right."

     "You can throw in a pair of eyes and if it doesn't look right, you can take them out and throw another pair in," says Muchow. "Or you can hide the different layers. This way, John has the opportunity to look at it from different views and perspectives, and either come up with something else, or say 'Oh yeah, you guys got it.' "

Forensic challenges: Age progression and decomposition

     Aside from rebuilding a face based on photographs and witness description, certain cases demand a bit more investigative work. Sometimes forensic personnel must determine an identity while allowing for age progression and other preexisting factors that literally destroy pieces of evidence. Armed with a determined workforce and precise technology, Lamberti looks forward to tackling cases such as these.

     One problem unique to Broward County is the Everglades. The subtropical wetland that occupies approximately 2,000 square miles on the southern tip of Florida has historically been used as a dumping ground for homicide victims.

     When bodies are interned in any warm, watery environment they decompose; making identification difficult, if not impossible. Not only does this hurt a case — but it leaves survivors without closure.

     "Periodically, we still do find bodies that have been dumped in the Everglades," says Lamberti, noting they "found one about three months ago."

     He goes on to say that "with decomposition, you don't really have a facial composite to go off. So, part of [a forensic artist's job] is facial reconstruction, and then the age progression on some of these victims.

     This requires the team to work very closely with medical examiners and survivors. It takes much more time than simply drawing a witness-directed composite of a suspect-at-large.

     "With our enhanced capabilities, we can do the facial reconstructions and try to identify the victims for the family's sake — not just for the investigation — to bring closure to the family," says Lamberti.

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