WPA – How reliable is your witness?

One of the sessions I attended at the Writers Police Academy was Robin Burcell’s (www.robinburcell.com) “Forensic Art and Witness Recall.” She started the session by telling us a little about herself. Her career began before she even officially became a police officer. While still a student at the police academy she was used undercover in a high school. That career path, however, ended when the teachers and administration started asking too many questions about her”made-up”  family. As a police officer, her artistic talents led her to be trained by the FBI to become a Forensic Artist. Once she had the training, she was often loaned out to other police departments to do the drawings from witness statements.


Robin Burcell

She said it usually took her 3 hours to do a sketch; that drawings often worked better than the computerized composites that ended up looking like Mr. Potato Head; but memories are fragile.

She was then interrupted by a man who came into the room. The two of them spoke for about a minute or two and then he left. It appeared that he was telling her something he didn’t want the rest of us to know because he held a notebook up so we couldn’t see their lips. After he left, Robin turned to us and asked us to write down what he looked like, how tall he was, his approximate age, and any details we could remember.

Well, I failed miserably. What’s worse, earlier I’d seen the two of them talking in the lobby. When Robin gave us the actual description of his height, what he was wearing, and his hair color, what I’d written down wasn’t even close. I have always known I’d make a terrible witness—after all, it took me three days to realize my husband had cut off the beard that he’d had for over ten years—and this really proved it.

She went on to explain that one of the reasons the police always separate witnesses and interview them separately is one person can influence another’s memory of an event. She said, when she was doing a drawing, she always started the interview asking the witness/victim to start prior to the event.  She then walked the victim or witness back through the crime. (I guess all of this is in her book: Face of a Killer. I plan on buying and reading it.)

Cognitive memory helps a person remember things. What a witness remembers may be dependent on the person’s personal experiences. For that reason, she asks the person to recall the five senses: What did you smell? What did you hear? Touch? Taste? See?

One thing she said was sketches were not used to identify but to eliminate suspects. She also said a sketch is better than the identi-kit images (https://www.identikit.net/) because people don’t expect a person to look exactly like a drawing.



Besides going to sessions, I took advantage of the EMS ride along. To do that, all one had to do was go to EMS bay door and wait. Three at a time could ride along. Once inside of the ambulance, we had to fasten our seatbelts and off we went. On the ride I took, there was one EMS graduate and 2 students in the back. The two students were performing CPR on the “patient” (a dummy), giving 30 compressions and then 2 pushes on the air bag. We were each allowed a few pushes on the air bag. Along the ride, they inserted a needle in the arm to start an IV and a tube down the throat to get oxygen to the lungs. All this was going on while the ambulance was driving over bumpy roads. That they could get the needle and tube in the right spots was amazing.

We rode in this ambulance

We rode in this ambulance

They said when they arrive at a scene where the victim is unconscious, they will check for diabetes (do a finger prick), and ask bystanders if the victim was taking any drugs. If the heart has stopped, they’ll try for 30 minutes at the scene to re-establish a heartbeat and will inject with EPI to stimulate the heart. Main things I noticed were how narrow the work space is inside the ambulance, how bumpy the ride can be, and that the siren isn’t really that loud inside.

EMS3Inside of the ambulance


That’s all for this week.


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6 Responses to WPA – How reliable is your witness?

  1. Hi, Maris,

    This is all valuable information. Thanks for sharing with us. I doubt my recall of a suspect would be that good either.

  2. Melissa Keir says:

    What a great program. Thanks for sharing! We saw a video where a Gorilla runs through a group of people and no one really saw it because everyone was focused on the ball the people were throwing.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Melissa, that’s a kick, but I believe it. Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s others who don’t see what’s going on around because something else is holding my/their attention.

  3. Diane Burton says:

    I would make a lousy witness. I am so unobservant. Lots of good info from your conference. Thanks for sharing.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Diane (and others), I’m really surprised to hear you’re unobservant. I thought it was only me, that most writers were super observant. It’s rather nice to discover I’m not alone.