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.


Anonymous said...

So how was this 21 year old committing rape for 16 years since the age of 5?
Guess that explains the 5'2" height verses 6' height discrepancy .....................

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Yes, it's a bit confusing. The "Teardrop Rapist" had been active for 16 years as of the date of this post (2012). The 21-year-old was arrested in 1999. So, he would have been about 18 when the rapes began.

Meanwhile, since the publication of this post, a second man has also been exonerated in a rape that is now attributed to the "Teardrop Rapist." Luis Lorenzo Vargas was not as lucky as the 21-year-old: He spent 16 years in prison before finally being exonerated based on DNA evidence. He was wrongly convicted of a 1998 rape based in large part on police photo lineups.

The Teardrop Rapist remains unidentified.