Police Witness Sketches can be Inaccurate and Dangerous

Do you remember the game you used to play in school as a kid called Telephone? It was the game where everybody whispered a word or phrase to each other, and by the time the phrase was whispered to enough people, the last person’s version of the original word or phrase was completely skewed and inaccurate.

We have our own real life version of Telephone when it comes to police investigations and arrests, and it is called police sketches. These are the sketches of wanted individuals that are put out in the media when police are looking for a suspect or a fugitive.

Communication Breakdown

Even in the hands of the most talented artists, these sketches still suffer from their own game of Telephone. That is because the process starts with the description of a witness who may have seen the suspect only briefly. If the witness was actually a victim in the crime, his or her memory of the event may be inaccurate, as many are when we are dealing with a traumatic and stressful situation.

Then, we need to rely on the communication between the witness and the sketch artist to be accurate. Differences in how words are used or meant, or interpretations of different languages, can make it difficult for a witness to convey to the artist accurate information about what a suspect looks like.

One study found that only 8% of sketches accurately portrayed the person that they were looking for. The frightening thing is that these sketches may not look like the actual suspect, but may end up resembling a total stranger with nothing to do with the crime. That stranger can then be chosen from a police lineup based on the sketch.

The Science Behind Inaccuracy

Scientists say that the problem is that we see faces as a whole. We do not take special note of exactly what someone’s mouth or eyes or nose look like. Yet, when drawing police sketches, witnesses are often asked to describe a suspect one facial feature at a time.

For example, if you spotted your favorite movie actor on the street, you wouldd probably recognize him or her immediately. But if you were asked to describe her mouth or her eyes from scratch, you would probably have a harder time.

Today, many sketch artists are being replaced by computer programs that give victims the option of identifying entire faces together instead of one feature at a time.

Objections Should be Made to Admissibility

Hand sketches can be damaging, and criminal attorneys need to work to make sure they are not admitted in trial. In many cases, the sketches are not admissible as they are hearsay. However, if the person who made the “statement,” such as the witness testifies, and is allowed to be cross examined, some courts will then allow the sketch to be admitted.

Some courts in the country have allowed the sketches to be admitted, saying that they are in fact just pictures and not statements that are subject to the hearsay rule.

Winning at trial means keeping out information that is inaccurate or against the rules of evidence. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your arrest or criminal charges and all possible defenses.