Thursday, October 25, 2007

'Psychic' sketch of the real killer? (snicker!)

` Remember when I used to post articles written by other people? Well, I'm back to it again, because, well, I have some leftovers. And I like to encourage people to read this stuff. Here's one from two years and two months ago, exactly....
Shame on Shamus Sham
Joe Nickell

The brouhaha over the latest "evidence" in the decade-old JonBenet Ramsey case-John Mark Karr's "confession" that he murdered the child beauty queen-included claims that the late psychic detective Dorothy Allison had once foreseen Karr's likeness and other identifying details.

Allison appeared on the April 27, 1998, airing of LEEZA (the Leeza Gibbons Show). She claimed to psychically exonerate the slain child's parents, John and Patsy Ramsey. Allison instead exhibited a sketch of the alleged killer, which she had produced with the assistance of a police artist. (At the time, I had looked into Allison's pronouncements at the urging of my friend, the late television legend Steve Allen. (See "The Case of the Psychic Shamus" in my book The Mystery Chronicles [Nickell 2004, 252-257].)

In addition to the envisioned portrait, Allison predicted the killer would have "connections" to Germany and Georgia, and gave additional details. However, just as a New Jersey police captain had said of her other "cases," Allison's predictions "were difficult to verify when initially given." Allison followed the formula utilized by other reputed psychic sleuths: take advantage of the publicity engendered by a high-profile case, and make numerous pronouncements, such that-when the true facts are subsequently established-the statements can be interpreted accordingly. (For example, "water" can later be identified with a nearby stream, lake, water tower, etc.) This clever technique of after-the-fact matching is called retrofitting, and it has fooled even seasoned detectives.

Following John Mark Karr's arrest, Allison's sketch prompted a bout of retrofitting from credulous reporters and New Age adherents. For example, according to Brad Parks of the Newark, New Jersey, newspaper, The Star-Ledger: "The sketch her vision helped create speaks for itself. About the only thing she got wrong was Karr's hair, which is parted to the side in her sketch but swept back in real life." Skeptics like me received communications from psychic believers crowing about Allison's perceived success in "identifying" JonBenet's killer.

However, even before Mr. Karr's story began to be questioned by more experienced writers and investigators, it was apparent that the resemblance between Karr and Allison's imagined intruder-murderer (see Figure 1) was actually little more than that between countless other clean-shaven white men.

Tipped off to the controversy by my mentor, James "The Amazing" Randi, I examined the set of pictures and reconsidered Allison's 1998 pronouncements. In recognizing profound differences between the two pictures-not only the hair but the entire shape of the head and other features, such as Karr's much fuller lower lip-I considered whether to point them out in text or to compare them in a diagram. I finally decided to create a new field, "forensic caricaturing": See Figure 2. With this method the differences are enhanced so that they may be more readily perceived.

As to Allison's statement that JonBenet's killer had "connections" to Georgia and Germany"-and the fact that Karr had links to both areas-many people could be so connected, myself among them. Moreover, one must avoid the fallacy of counting the hits while ignoring the misses. Whereas Allison's perceiving of the numbers 2-8-9 might easily be retrofitted to almost anyone, other statements she made regarding the crime are not so easily matchable.

In insisting on the Ramseys' innocence, she stated that the real killer was a former handyman. She told Leeza Gibbons that she had divined the names "Martin" and "Irving"-identifying the latter as "the one I think that did this." It would seem difficult to retrofit "Irving" as "John Mark Karr," but perhaps believers in Dorothy Allison's clairvoyant ability will somehow manage or will rationalize the discrepancy.

Meanwhile, Karr's purported guilt is increasingly being doubted, and perhaps the issue of Allison's accuracy in this instance will become moot. Yet that is all the more reason to focus on the perceived match of Karr and the Allison sketch. The mismatch serves as a warning against the tendency to retrofit, and against the temptation to accept uncritically the imaginings of a failed clairvoyant.


Nickell, Joe. 2004. The Mystery Chronicles. Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky.

Parks, Brad. 2006. Psychic's 1998 vision comes to life. Newark, New Jersey: The Star-Ledger, August 18.

` Here's the funny thing - Karr hasn't been convicted of the killing. Perhaps Allison has some wiggle-room here... maybe the sketch really is of the 'real' killer - Irving Martin!
` Well, I must really go at this precise instant, as I am about to pick up X-Dan to help me find coded signals infiltrating this building with his top secret device. No, really. It has an antenna. Aw, stop it!! Okay, he's gay, alright? I said it!! It's not like that!!


Kingcover said...

Yeah I see what you mean. The detectives were pushed into finding someone resembling the sketch and tried to fit the details around him so in other words they were being 'blindly led' in that direction.

S E E Quine said...

` Hey! Let me get a closer look at your avatar... wait a minute! Using my skills of forensic caricature judging, I have deduced that you are wanted in the States for hijacking a glacier!

` P.S. X-Dan failed me by leaving for Seattle just as I was approaching the compound....
` Silly test subjects, always wanting to have their own lives!

Kingcover said...

It was not me that hijacked that glacier, I was in fact the mastermind behind stealing the very expensive ........ oh wow that was a close call. I was almost looking at a lifetime of prison there. Phewwwww.

Galtron said...

Actually, Kingcover, the point of this article is that the detectives weren't really paying much attention to Allison.
When they finally tracked down Karr, Allison insisted the sketch looked like him, even though it clearly doesn't. Looks more like my uncle Gil, actually!

S E E Quine said...

` Thank you Galtron. I would have pointed that out... but I was pressed for time. Yeah, sure, that was it.

` You know, the sketch really looks like my abusive sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Galbraith.
` He sat on us kids and also ripped up and threw away my best composition I'd written - just for him - and I almost missed the ride home because he wouldn't let me retrieve it from the garbage!

angel said...

kingcover said it so well!

Charles said...

Wow, SEEQuine,
I just saw you started up the googlepage, and you're doing great with it. Cool, huh? You picked that up and ran with it like a crackhead with a loose purse. :D

S E E Quine said...

` Ah ha ha ha ha! Thanks!

MONA said...

Hey Sara,
Why don't you join us in writing some
flash 55 fictions? Charles invented an awesome gadget for the purpose.

A Flash 55 is a piece of 55 written words that include at least one central character and a theme. I am sure you will do a brilliant jb of it!

S E E Quine said...

` I'm sure I would. I'm just too busy with my crazy experiments.