April 27, 2012

Composites illustrate problems with eyewitness recall

Take a minute to examine this display of composites. Notice the wide variations in features -- eyes, apparent age, bone structure, etc.

DNA evidence links 11 rapes in East Los Angeles over the past 16 years to this so-called "Teardrop Rapist." Based on the similarities in modus operandi and description, police believe he is responsible for at least 17 other rapes, for a total of 28 or more.

But, as these sketches show, the victims have strikingly different recall. They give his height as between a pint-sized 5 foot 2 inches and 6 feet. His weight fluctuates between 130 and 200 pounds. His age varies between 27 and 40.

Even the teardrop(s), an especially distinctive feature, are recalled differently. Some victims saw one teardrop; some reported up to three -- or none at all (police say he may have had them removed). The teardrop(s) were usually spotted on his left cheek, but occasionally they were seen on his right.

About the only constants are his eyes (brown), his ethnicity (Hispanic), and the fact that he wears a head covering. 

In 1999, police arrested a 21-year-old man for the attacks. Given the problems with eyewitness accuracy so amply illustrated here, the existence of DNA evidence proved a lucky break for him: He was exonerated.

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