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Facial Profiling 

Will face-recognition technology get an accused killer off the hook?

Wednesday, Jul 14 2010
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"Any biometrics system can make a mistake," said Anil Jain, a Michigan State University professor of computer science and engineering and a biometrics expert. "In the case of face, the accuracy is worse, because face changes with respect to illumination, with respect to aging. ... I think face recognition, particularly for surveillance applications, is not quite ready for automated identification."

Jain also raised questions about Bavarian's comparison of the images of Heard and the video of the supposed shooter. After a phone interview with SF Weekly, he reviewed the "Biometric Analysis" submitted to the court by Bavarian and, in a subsequent e-mail, highlighted what he saw as several weaknesses in the report.

In Heard's case, Jain noted, "It is not surprising that they have an inconclusive result given the quality of video. ... The problem of comparing a high-resolution image with the low-resolution video is challenging." Additionally, he noted that Bavarian's decision to perform a comparison of the faces in the images by hand, rather than using a computer program, "introduces a lot of subjectivity."

Asked about these criticisms, Bavarian said he had performed the analysis manually because the low-quality images from the surveillance tapes could not be accurately fed into automated biometrics software. He acknowledged a risk of subjectivity in his method, but said it had been minimized — and the poor quality of the images corrected for — by comparing Heard's jail photo to dozens of still frames of the shooter gleaned from the video footage, rather than just one or two.

Perhaps the most damning review of Bavarian's work came from the expert witness Swart put on the stand to debunk his analysis.

Richard Vorder Bruegge is a forensic scientist and photographic technologist employed by the FBI. He has a Ph.D. in geological sciences from Brown University, a full head of silver hair, and youthful good looks, presenting a stark contrast to Bavarian's vaguely reptilian allure.

The authoritativeness of Vorder Bruegge's résumé was almost comical. He worked with NASA on the Clementine mission, which carried out the first image mapping of the moon in 1994; he is the chairman of the Facial Identification Scientific Working Group — the same group Bavarian had claimed was "not relevant"; and he came to San Francisco for Heard's trial just two weeks after delivering the keynote address on facial identification at a biometrics conference in Australia.

On the stand, Vorder Bruegge argued that the technique used by Bavarian — measuring the distances between facial features, creating ratios, and then comparing them — was "not reliable," because it depended too much on such variables as a subject's pose and the angle of the camera. A more fundamental problem in Heard's case, he said, was that the image gleaned from the low-resolution surveillance video simply wasn't fit for scientific analysis.

"Dr. Vorder Bruegge," Swart asked, as he concluded his questioning, "in your opinion, is Dr. Bavarian's report reliable?"

"No," Vorder Bruegge said.

Swart repeated, "Is it reliable?"

"No," Vorder Bruegge said evenly. "It is not."


As the trial wound down, Safire chose to highlight the blurry surveillance video as one of several factors pointing to Heard's innocence. The biometric evidence, he asserted, was simply one more factor that should raise a reasonable doubt as to whether Heard had committed murder.

The prosecutors in the case, he told jurors in his closing argument, were "trying to scare you into making a mistake. Why? Because Mr. Heard's image is not in that video." Of the biometric analysis, he said, "Listen, you guys heard the scientific evidence. I don't quite get it myself, but all I can tell you is that was an attempt to try to make this case easier to decide."

During his own summation, Swart set to bashing Bavarian again. He also praised the testimony of Vorder Bruegge.

"A guy who used to work for NASA came in here, and he said [the video is] just too low-resolution," he said.

"He exposed Dr. Bavarian for what he is," he continued. "In the legal community, we have a term for what Dr. Bavarian tried to do. It's called junk science."

Charles Heard's jury deliberated for nine days. It was an improbably long period for a relatively uncomplicated murder case. Earlier this year, a San Francisco jury returned not-guilty verdicts in a five-month double-murder trial after a little more than a day.

As deliberations stretched on, it became clear that jurors were struggling with the issue that had been at the heart of the case from the beginning — the identity of Barrett's killer. The jury eventually asked the judge for guidance on the "felony murder doctrine," under which defendants can be convicted of a murder they did not personally commit, so long as they were participating in the crime that led to the killing.

The meaning of this communication was clear to those versed in criminal law. Despite the testimony of multiple eyewitnesses and the biometric analysis provided by Bavarian and countered by Vorder Bruegge, the jury couldn't settle the question of whether Heard had been the shooter.

Ultimately, jurors decided he had not been. But they still convicted him of first-degree murder.

On the morning of July 1, the jury announced that it had found Heard guilty under the felony murder rule — though he could not be identified as the shooter, the jurors believed he had participated in the attempted robbery that resulted in Barrett's death — and guilty of attempted robbery. It hung on a third charge, for firearm possession.

When the verdict was announced, a cheer went up from Barrett's family members, who had packed the gallery. Outside the court, his relatives were effusive, crying as they voiced their joy at the case's outcome.

"I'm really happy. Justice was served for my family, my granddaughters," said Laura Barrett, the victim's mother. "For them to shoot him in the back like that — Charles Heard ain't nothin' but a coward."

About The Author

Peter Jamison

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