When two jewellers were murdered on April 11 near Malad station in front of several commuters, the only sketches the police could manage were ones in which faces of both criminals were covered with a handkerchief. This despite the fact that several eyewitnesses were present at the scene.
In January, Riyaz (name changed) was arrested on charges of raping a six-year-old girl based on a sketch prepared with the help of victim's grandmother, who had spoken to the accused minutes before he had kidnapped the girl. Riyaz was released last week, after three months in jail, when his DNA did not match that of the accused. The victim's grandmother, who had initially said that he could be the rapist, could not identify him among others in an identification parade last week.
These cases raise questions about the reliability and effectiveness of sketches, the first and most basic investigative tool used by the police to solve crimes.
Senior inspector of Shivaji Nagar police station RS Agarwal said, "At times, the problem with a sketch is that the witness may not recollect the vital features of accused clearly. First, the witness should have seen the accused well; then the witness should be able to describe the features of the accused to the sketch artist. Also, the sketch artist should be good enough to make an accurate sketch."
Getting witnesses to describe the accused as soon as possible when their memory is fresh plays a crucial role in sketches.
Police say that the proverbial sketch is losing its relevance in the age of CCTV footage and mobile phone records. "Sketches do have a part to play in investigation, but over the past few years the reliance on sketches has gone down with tools such as CCTV camera footage and mobile records helping track down criminals," said Srirang Nadgouda, senior inspector, Bhandup police station.
Even during senior journalist J Dey's murder investigation, the sketches released bore no resemblance to any of the accused eventually arrested. Experts said sketches have no relevance in criminal proceedings. "Sketches based on eyewitness accounts have no evidential value in a court of law. Preparing a sketch is more of a procedural formality that has to be followed. It is of little use in tracking down accused. So, while the possibility of it helping investigations remains remote, some clue is better than no clue," said YP Singh, a former IPS officer who is now a lawyer.
A crime branch officer, on condition of anonymity maintained that sketches can be important. "While it is true that instances of criminals arrested solely on the basis of sketches are rare, it can at times be an aiding tool in our investigations."