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Drawing a killer from memory

Streed: "I've had cases where people are totally confident and they've been wholly wrong unfortunately."

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- The Washington-area sniper has been able to elude police, in part, because there are no witnesses who can describe him to a police sketch artist.

Criminals know the power of their drawn faces being splashed all over television and newspapers. After a sketch of the Unabomber suspect was widely published, Ted Kaczynski broke his nose to alter his appearance.

Officer Michael Streed drew a sketch from witnesses' memories of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion's abductor. It helped police captured Alejandro Avila four days later.

Streed spoke with CNN Anchor Connie Chung about his work.

CHUNG: How do you determine what information is credible? In the sniper case fortunately, the investigators were able to ferret out the information that the witness was bogus.

STREED: Oftentimes we don't get to the witness until they've been talked to by several investigators or officers on the scene. We rely on the investigators to provide our witnesses for us. It's not often that we're on the scene to determine who actually is the best witness. A lot of times we're depending on the investigators to feed us the witnesses.

CHUNG: If the investigators feed you a witness that you are a little bit questionable about, are you able to read these witnesses and ferret out your information?

STREED: Occasionally. Part of the job of being a police composite artist is the ability to understand and relate to people. And I think sometimes there's some cues you pick up along the way because we're spending a considerable amount of time with them that we're able to alert investigators that that might not be all there is to it.

CHUNG: How can you tell if a witness is credible? If they're confident, does that tell you: ah yes, that person really knows what he's talking about, and we'll really buy his story?

STREED: Not necessarily. I've had cases where people are totally confident and they've been wholly wrong unfortunately. With all their best intentions, they're trying the best they can. But for a lot of reasons, they come forward and boast that they've seen what they haven't. And, in some cases, they're so sure of what they saw because they're trying to cover up what maybe a relative or friend's involvement in a crime.

CHUNG: The sketch in the Son of Sam case bore no resemblance to the man eventually convicted, David Berkowitz. That does happen, doesn't it?

STREED: Again, you're talking about the human memory which is very fragile at best. And I have to say I certainly support what they're doing back East. I think they're being very responsible in their approach, of how they're handling it, and not rushing to put out a sketch that might certainly hamper their investigation.

But at the same time, in the Son of Sam case, you're talking about a guy who walks up on cars in the middle of the night. And then these people are at a disadvantage.

CHUNG: Walk us through the process of how you come up with a composite sketch. If there are conflicting bits of information, how do you come to consensus?

STREED: For me, it's a matter of talking to the people, spending the time to find out where exactly they were at the time the crime was committed. What their perspective was, how long they saw the person, angle of observation -- different things like that. Also, time and distance, lighting, if their mind was altered in any way from either alcohol, or maybe prescription medication or things like that. And the amount of detail they're able to provide.

CHUNG: How often do composite sketches lead to arrests, would you say?

STREED: I don't think there's any study. Everybody keeps their own statistics and there's no data pool on that. But I would say in a great number of cases they are instrumental in either identifying someone or eliminating somebody they may have been looking at. So as a tool, they're very valuable.

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