I’ve always found forensic facial reconstruction to be a fascinating gig. It’s a branch of forensic anthropology. Cool. Usually when police have unsuccessfully used every possible means of identifying remains, then forensics is required. Working with a partial or full skull to reconstruct the face of a victim (or a suspect). When done properly, a facial reconstruction can establish the gender and possible race of the deceased. This is the Cole’s notes on what is needed:
- a plaster cast model of the skull
- the size of the ocular cavities, shape of the nose, width of the mouth, height of cheekbones
- other measurements
Case 1 – Caucasian Female
In 1994 the skeleton of a young Caucasian female was found on the summit of Table Mountain. The remains were lying in an area of thick reeds that was approximately 200 meters from the pathway. The young woman who disappeared had been suffering from chronic depression and was being treated by a psychiatrist. An extensive search was launched after her disappearance by the police, the army, and the airforce but was unsuccessful. The location of the body in the tall reeds contributed to its lack of discovery.
The skull and mandible were referred to an FA for facial reconstruction as a final attempt at identification. The artist had not seen any photographs of the deceased, and this afforded her the opportunity to construct a face on the skull and then compare it with known photographs. The parents of the deceased were invited to view the facial reconstruction, and the comments of the mother are as follows: “Although the sculpture does not look exactly like our daughter, the family resemblance is remarkable, so much so that it looks exactly like our niece. We are satisfied now that our daughter is dead.”
FFR requires a team effort. Forensic archeologists and medical examiners assist forensic anthropologists (FA) by suggesting a racial lineage, sex, and age group. Critics of this discipline state it lacks in substance and the results are tantamount to guess work. Indeed, one FA stated she had to be sure she didn’t make corrections in the face to make it better proportioned and more attractive. The artistic aspect of FFR was the most challenging for her. It is also true that FFR is not a science. FFR is done for the benefit of public identification and recognition. However,the results are staggering. Many victims are identified years after their disappearances or murders. Even better, some people are found alive and well. The reconstructing of a human face is painstaking and can take many weeks and even months to get right and even then there is a chance that the victim’s face, as modeled in clay by the anthropologist, may never be recognized.
Once reconstructed around the cast model of the skull the face is then given its features, which are again painstakingly modeled in order to convey the maximum amount of humanity into the model so that it does not simply look like the clay model of someone’s head. These attentions to detail are often the reasons why members of the public or perhaps a loved one who has been searching for a missing relative come forward.
Case 2 – Biracial Female
In April 1995, skeletal remains were unearthed in Crawford, Cape Town. The skeleton lay in a shallow grave and was entangled in female clothing. The skull was analyzed metrically to determine the age, race, and sex of the victim. The anatomical features of the skull were determined to be of mixed racial origin, containing Khoisanoid, and Caucasoid features. The age was estimated to be 24 years.
The reconstruction of the face was carried out on a plaster model of the skull and using the soft tissue thicknesses for persons of mixed racial origin. Following reconstruction of the face, it was photographed and the photograph was placed in the newspaper for recognition. This was unsuccessful, and a further attempt using media exposure showed the photograph on a television program Crime Stop. This led to a telephone call from a woman whose daughter disappeared after attending a birthday party in Cape Town. A photograph of her daughter was subsequently submitted and the mother was confident that her daughter had been identified.
Another method of trying to reconstruct the face of a missing person is age progression using a computer. This process requires precise artistic skills when sketching a the victim’s face onto a sketchpad, The sketch is used as a base to apply the image onto a skull on the computer. Anthropology students are sometimes given pictures of celebrities to sketch and reproduce on their sketchpads. This helps them to work on distinguishing features. The students assess each others work by identifying the results.
The memories of the general public and their willingness to come forward also determine the outcome of this painstaking work. Often crimes that are many years old are the most challenging to find an identification. Time has passed. People don’t wish to re-visit a painful crime, especially when they were the victim. They have moved on and don’t see the point in revisiting old tragedies. Others are afraid they will be arrested in connection with a crime. It is important to mention again that this is not an exact science but can be used for the purposes of jogging the public’s memories. The remodeling of a face over a skull upon which no features exist is delicate work but can offer limited hope in providing the police with a match to a missing person or unidentified murder victim.
There is another branch of FFR that involves computer aging. Obviously there is no skull to work with in order to identify the missing person. Instead the FA is provided with the most recent picture of the missing person, often a picture taken in early childhood. Using the type of measurements listen above, as well as features from both parents, the FA uses computer aging to demonstrate the possible appearance of the child after several years. Police sketches are sometimes made in this manner and sometimes using witness identification.
Case 3 – In a bizarre case that has an undeniably happy ending, a man named Steven Carter discovered his picture as a child on a missing children’s website. The computer aging was incredibly accurate. Carter stated “it was a bit shocking to see yourself and to realize that you know what people have been looking for you for that long.I was shell-shocked. I’d never seen a baby picture of myself…We decided to call the Honolulu Police Department.” Carter found his biological father in this manner yet he hesitated “to go forward with it.” Carter’s biological mother, Charlotte Moriarty, who had abducted Carter 3 decades ago, is still missing. Carter was adopted at age 4. He knew since he was a child that he was adopted. He states he has “two amazing parents and they did a wonderful job raising me.”
Case 4 – Baby Lisa – a computer aging photograph was made of an infant who was abducted at the age of 11 months old from her crib. Her mother was at home asleep. The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children has investigated this and many other cases. An expert, Lt. Kellie Bailiff explained “you really want the eyes and nose and mouth to stand out and that’s the focus of basically a good age progression.”
A website exists for every state in the US displaying possible FFRs of found people who haven’t been identified and possibly claimed. Forensic facial reconstruction is viewed by many as a questionable technique. This is due to its undeniable shortcomings. First, the data used to determine facial tissue thickness is very limited and that can affect reconstruction accuracy. Second, facial reconstruction is a subjective nature and it has inconsistencies – the result of a combination of anatomy, osteology, forensic science, anthropology, and artistic sculpture. In fact, when numerous forensic reconstruction artists create approximations of a single set of skeletal remains, the reconstructions differ vastly. This inconsistency is due to the subjectivity of the facial reconstruction artists.
I don’t know. Personally I think a best guess and a little science at reconstructing a deceased person is better than no effort at all. And the odd case of Steve Carter is proof that putting something out there can take a bizarre situation and make it right. If the forensic facial reconstruction doesn’t lead to an identification of a deceased loved one, well neither would the bones as they were initially uncovered. Sometimes you have to dig (pun) a little to find that silver lining. And that missing child.