The art of the job: How South Carolina’s forensic artists bring descriptions to life

Local News

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCBD) – To be a forensic artist, it takes more than just skill with a pencil or stylus – it takes specialized characteristics and a lot of patience.

Deborah Goff, a Senior Special Agent for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), has been with the agency for roughly 15 years. She’s one of only two forensic artists in the state, with the other being her co-worker, Special Agent Lara Gorick.

SSA Goff explained that to be a forensic artist, you must be able to sit down with any individual, often right after the most traumatic experience of his or her life, and manifest a description into a piece of evidence that can be instrumental in solving a case.

This requires a unique posture.

Forensic artists need the patience and compassion to allow people to work through reliving those moments, the phycological and anatomical understanding to translate words into an image, the artistic ability to accurately portray the description, and the ability to communicate with law enforcement.

SSA Goff said that the interviews themselves are her favorite part of her job, as all questions are asked in an open-ended style to avoid leading the witness.

The exception is the preliminary question: would the witness be able to recognize the offender if seen again?

If yes, the interview begins with an overview of the situation to shed light on how the witness last viewed the suspect. Then the description begins.

“I’ll ask them ‘what can you tell me about what the person looked like?’ So, they’re telling me in their own words what the person looked like, what stood out to them, what they remember. And then from there we get more specific as we continue the interview,” said SSA Goff.

Part of those specifics can, at times, involve using pictures to better articulate features if an ethnicity or race has already been established. These pictures are compiled in binders containing a variety of photos: from different ethnic actors and sports players to types of hats, hairstyles, and even glasses.

Once the sketch — and ultimately the interview — is finished, it gets rated for by the witness for accuracy on a scale from 1 to 10. The scale starts at 1 being completely unlike the witness’s memory and 10 being almost identical. 

The number determined is then passed on to the investigators to allow them to know how best to move forward, along with any other additional information that the artist has come to know.

As for what SSA Goff said she wants the public to know most of all?

“It’s not expected to be an exact portrait of the person. What we’re doing is we are working from somebody’s memory which isn’t 100% to start with. So, we’re hoping that we’ve developed a good enough sketch that is of enough resemblance of a person to help generate leads.”

While there are only two forensic artists in the state, any and all South Carolina police departments may use the services of both SSA Goff or Special Agent Gorick, if needed. 

If they are contacted for assistance, the case will remain in the hands of the local law enforcement agency unless SLED is contacted to take over the case.  

Services provided by the Forensic Art Unit: 

  • Composite Sketches 
    • An investigative tool to assist in creating a visual representation when a description is given through the interview process.  
  • Forensic Facial Reconstructions  
    • Used when a semi-skeletonized skull, fully-skeletonized skull, or high-quality photographs of the skull are available to recreate 2D or 3D sculptures of an appearance through unidentified remains.  
  • Post-Mortem Images 
    • Used when an unidentified deceased individual is not yet skeletonized. This service is done through high-quality crime scene photographs or morgue photographs. 
  • Age-Progressions 
    • Whether a missing person or a fugitive, this is used to bring the individual to current age. The most recent picture of the individual is needed, and if possible, additional photos of the individual. Photos of family members throughout the years are helpful as well.

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