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December 18, 2014

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Face time: The job of a Metro sketch artist

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The drawing begins with what witnesses remember best: head shape, eyes, lips. Daneen Murphy has a catalog of facial features to choose from, like putting together a puzzle: Did the burglar have a strong chin? Acne? Murphy pencils it in. As the face emerges, the memory comes back: heavy eyelids, fat cheeks. That’s him.

It started with portraits of co-workers. Murphy, a civilian employee at Metro, studied art but never pursued a career. For fun, she drew her colleagues. Then a police captain noticed, and wondered whether she’d like to train formally as a sketch artist for the department. She studied suspect sketches, postmortem drawings (when John Does are too decomposed or injured to distribute photographs) and age-progression renderings, drawing what missing children might look like years later.

Murphy’s had 10 “hits”—people arrested after her sketches were released—since she started doing composites for Metro in 2003. Normally, she’s asked to sketch a suspect every few months. Most recently, she drew two men wanted for a series of home invasions, one with his face half-hidden under a mask. In the days after the sketches were released, victims reported recognizing the men—mid-robbery—from the drawings. In April, after they were arrested, Murphy compared the mug shots to her sketches. Today, she demurs when asked if the likeness satisfied—it’s not that Murphy’s modest, it’s that she’s hard on herself. She seemed pleased with the drawings, but perhaps not thrilled.

“I’m real critical of my own work,” she said. But what artist isn’t?

Sketches usually take two hours, though much depends on the suspect (did they hang around long?) and the witness (were they too scared to remember?). Murphy must coax the witnesses’ memory without pushing. She always draws in pencil, by hand, as the process unfolds. This allows her to adjust as the face comes together. As they fill in the empty face with features, more details often come to surface—the bridge of the nose was thin, the scar ran through the eyebrow.

Murphy is finished when the witness is satisfied. “It’s their drawing,” she said. “I am just the conduit.”

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