The words ‘forensic science’ don’t immediately inspire thoughts even relating to art — what we think of is CSI, bloody crime scenes, traces of hair and semen, fingerprints, and criminal profiling. Believe it or not, art can play a huge part in solving a crime. Forensic science artists are not only responsible for delivering accurate, detailed portraits of a suspect based only on eye witness accounts. They can also help investigators recreate a person’s entire face based only on skeletal structure — sometimes working with mere parts of the skull to do so. 3D facial structures can help identify a victim; if a family recognizes the forensic artist’s composite drawing, they may come forward to identify the person. Forensic science artists can help bring closure to families and solve missing persons cases in this way.
Frank Bender was a forensic science sculptor who recently passed away at age 70. Not only did he reconstruct the faces of unidentified murder victims, but he worked in 3D sculptures that would end up being beautiful, albeit kind of creepy, busts. Bender’s story is an interesting one; originally a professional photographer, he began his work with forensic science after visiting a PA morgue in the 70s. Police reached out to Bender for help, and he gladly accepted. Decades later he was still being sent the skulls of unidentified victims — some of which weren’t entirely cleaned and had to be boiled in a slow simmer on his kitchen stove. Bender’s profession was more than just scientific interpretation of the skull’s features. He gave each bust its own personality, and inferred facial expressions and other small features by studying other details of the body and the victim’s situation at his or her time of death. A perfect example was his bust of Rosella Atkinson, an 18 year old girl who was murdered in 1987. Bender, knowing that she wore a nice dress shirt uncommon of girls her age in her impoverished and crime ridden part of town, thought of her as a girl with hope for a better future. When her aunt identified Atkinson by the bust years later, she said that the girl was known to make the hopeful face that Bender had given her. Consequently, her murderer was caught. This great forensic science sculptor was also known to aid the capture of criminals by using photographs of a suspect to create an aged version of the person.
Another great forensic science artist is Joy Mann, a woman responsible for creating drawings of the dead. One woman who died in 2004 needed a sketch of her face released to the public since she had been burned beyond recognition. Mann used her skull to help create the drawing, and once the sketch aired, it was recognized almost immediately by her worried mother. The woman had died of a cocaine overdose, and her boyfriend had panicked — deciding to dump her body and set it ablaze. Mann began in law school, but lost interest after becoming a mother. When someone at her church suggested she use her already developed art talents to become a forensic science artist, Mann decided to make it happen right away. Mann, like most forensic artists, taught herself — there is no formal training available. Some forensic artists offer classes, but there’s no college or certification in this field. Mann says that one of the most challenging aspects of being a forensic science artist is not leading the witness; it’s easier to create false memories when asked closed questions like ‘did the person have blue or brown eyes?’ Instead, it’s best to say things like ‘tell me about their eyes’ or ‘what color was their skin?’ without making any suggestions.
Barbara Martin Bailey
Bailey first began her career as a forensic science artist when the ‘Co-Ed Killer’ was terrorizing women in her town. In fact, three of his victim’s were snatched from the very block she lived on. Outraged at the terrible police sketch that was being aired on television, Bailey sat down with a witness and created an entirely new sketch — one that would help authorities catch the vicious killer. Her point was proven, and she decided to forge a new path in life. She trained herself in multiple different methods of facial reconstruction, and took various classes on the subject. Anatomy is key, she says. Skulls are fitted with pegs which tell the artist how thick to sculpt the victim’s skin on, according to their age, weight, and other factors. Bailey was so adamant about her profession that she convinced the sheriff’s office in Michigan to create the previously nonexistent position of forensic artist. One of Bailey’s most famous accomplishments was drawing the face of a baby whose body was found horribly decomposed — the child’s tiny skull was used to create a drawing so accurate that the baby’s grandmother recognized her when it was aired on television.
Computers are slowly taking over the jobs of forensic science artists. Although the computer programs which render forensic sketches are far from perfect and still able to miss out on important details of a person’s face, they are considerably faster and cheaper than hiring an artist. With just a few clicks, a witness can help to create the face of the suspect without having to wait. What’s more is that mistakes can be easily adjusted instead of having to be erased. 3D computer software can also help create sculpture-esque models of a suspect or victim. Although they are unable to create works of art as special as Bender’s life-like, personality-filled busts, the forensic art programs on computers are constantly being improved and will someday soon be close to flawless. We hope.