Forensics and Faces from the Past

Forensics and Faces from the Past


A lot has changed in the field of forensic art since I first started back when the dinosaurs roamed. I entered the field in 1981, working for the North Idaho Regional Crime Lab. The lab handled physical evidence from the ten northern counties of Idaho, the FBI, ATF, Fish and Game, and any agency that requested our services. My first duties were to measure and record crime scenes and prepare trial materials.

Living in Idaho, our challenges then, and often still are, different from big-city law enforcement officers. For example, when I’d measure crime scenes, in addition to my handy tape measure, I also had a hammer, nails, and bottle caps. Crime scenes need established reference points, such as a fire hydrant or part of a structure. When the crime scene is out in the boonies, you can’t just say the north-south line was between a ponderosa pine and another ponderosa pine. There are no roads, signs, or buildings. I’d take the bottle cap and hammer it into the trees I chose. The metal could be found years later, if needed, by a metal detector.

If I got called out on a case, I might have to travel a number of hours over bad roads to get there. GPS devices were not widely used, and my directions might be, “drive south to Lewiston, turn left. When you reach Orofino, take another left. It’ll be the last store on the right in Weippe.”

I handled cases that, to this day, not one of my forensic art colleagues has ever worked. For example, an illegal moose killing. Yup. I point with pride at that one. There were traffic accidents caused by a herd of mules on the road. And we can never forget handwriting on a Forest Service outhouse.

When it came to composite drawings, the sketches we do from the description of a witness or victim, not much has changed in the past thirty-nine years. Although some artists use a digital tablet, the bulk of the work is still performed with pencil and paper.

It would be more than five years from the time I started at the crime lab before DNA evidence was used in law enforcement. Facial reconstruction, the drawing or clay application over a skull, was widely used to aid in identification. Those techniques are still used today when DNA isn’t possible, or other avenues have been exhausted.

Historical reconstructions are still performed to put a face on the past. Visitors to the Little Big Horn battlefield will see clay facial reconstructions of some of the fallen officers. In 1996, the skull of a Native American, “Kennewick Man,” received a lot of attention, and controversy, in when the reconstructed image ended up looking like the Star Trek star, Patrick Stewart.

In Charleston, South Carolina, a particularly interesting series of historical reconstructions are on display at the H. L. Hunley’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center

The Hunley was the first submarine to sink a ship during war—the Civil War! In 1864, the Hunley, with a crew of eight men, sank the USS Housatonic. The vessel then disappeared, vanished for more than a hundred and thirty years. It wasn’t until 1995, when the crew of National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), found the sunken boat. Suspense readers will recognize the name of NUMA—the organization founded by the late Clive Cussler, the New York Times-bestselling author. Still inside the doomed boat were the remains of all eight men.

Without photographs of the men, a forensic artist created facial reconstructions over cast skulls. These reconstructions are on display along with the boat, artifacts, and the history surrounding this slice of American history.

Although much of the work I did has changed since I first started in the forensic art field, many things remain the same. With GPS, I no longer need a hammer and bottle cap. With DNA, many of the unsolved cases have been resolved. Those things, in the long run, are merely the tools that we use. The knowledge of the human face, the awareness of the significant information needed from a crime scene, the understanding of visual communication, and the principals of forensic identification still remain.

About the Author:

Carrie Stuart Parks is an award-winning, internationally known forensic artist who has worked on major criminal cases for such agencies as the FBI and ATF, as well as numerous police and sheriff’s departments throughout the US. Carrie, who was mentored by New York Times best-selling author, Frank Peretti, is also the author of over twenty books, both fiction and non-fiction. Her latest novel, Relative Silence, will be released on July 14th. To learn more, visit



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