Could US serial killer’s voice shed light on his appearance?

Psychologists believe that telephone recordings of a serial murderer – who has escaped justice in the US for 40 years – could potentially be used to try to build up a picture of what he looked like at the time of his crimes.

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Telephone recordings exist of the perpetrator taunting his victims and the police.

Psychologists believe that telephone recordings of a serial murderer – who has escaped justice in the US for 40 years – could potentially be used to try to build up a picture of what he looked like at the time of his crimes.

A new study, involving researchers at Nottingham Trent University and King’s College London, aims to build on previous NTU research which suggests people make similar judgements about strangers regardless of whether they just hear their voice or see their face.

They plan to examine the theory by using the case of a violent and elusive individual who committed 12 murders, 45 rapes and more than 120 burglaries in California between 1976 and 1986.

Telephone recordings exist of the perpetrator taunting his victims and the police. Alongside these, there are also composites and sketches which were taken from various witness descriptions at the time. However, these images are relatively inconsistent, and the man’s facial appearance remains largely a mystery due to the fact he normally wore a balaclava.

Previous research led by Dr Harriet Smith, a psychologist in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences, has focused on the extent to which people ‘look’ and ‘sound’ similar. So if, for example, people think that a voice belongs to someone who sounds young, masculine and healthy the perpetrator is also very likely to look young, masculine and healthy.

We know that drawing links between faces and voices could produce some fascinating results

Dr Harriet Smith, Nottingham Trent University

Participants aged 18 and over are being invited to take part in an online questionnaire, so that psychologists can use their collective responses to whittle down a more accurate representation of what the perpetrator might have looked like based on the sound of his voice. The participants will be asked to listen to the voice recordings and to view the facial sketches/composites, before judging them in terms of appearance and personality.

The researchers will draw correlations between the face and voice ratings for dimensions such as age, masculinity, height, weight, attractiveness and level of education – to try to get a better idea of which composite is likely to be the most accurate depiction of the perpetrator.

“In some criminal cases, very little identity information about the perpetrator is available to law enforcement agencies – and this can make it very difficult to identify suspects and secure convictions,” said Dr Smith.

“In this particular case, voice recordings of the perpetrator exist, but there are no photographs of his face. This may have helped him to escape justice, because identifying someone from their voice is much harder than identifying them from their face.

“But we know that drawing links between faces and voices could produce some fascinating results. Based on our earlier work, it seems that people make similar judgements about strangers’ faces and voices, even when the two are not encountered together.

“This knowledge could be helpful in narrowing down a list of suspects, or establishing which one of several composites best depicts the perpetrator.

“Analysing the way in which participants respond to the voice recordings and facial composites could help us to develop new ways of accessing identity information about perpetrators in other cases. The results could inform novel approaches for the future, which we hope will eventually be useful to the police.”

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Could US serial killer’s voice shed light on his appearance?

Published on 2 December 2016
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Social Sciences

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