Vanderbilt Law Review


James A. George

First Page



A hallmark of Sherlock Holmes is his ability to solve complex crimes with well-staged performances. His flair for the shrewd and dramatic apprehension of a suspect in an inscrutable case often left his loyal companion Watson in awe, the local police investigators mystified, and the perpetrator thwarted. Holmes's admirers speculated that he must have had a special gift, maybe even psychic powers, which allowed him to solve any case. In reality, as Holmes always explained to his slow-witted companions, it was his insightful, rational, and logical approach to solving the mystery that inexorably led him to the solution.

Depictions of modern-day profilers are similar to depictions of Holmes, as they relate stories about bold predictions that eventually are vindicated. For example, a popular account of one of the first profilers, a psychiatrist named James A. Brussel, relates how he was contacted by police in 1957 to assist in identifying the "Mad Bomber" of New York, who was responsible for over thirty bombings in the city. After poring over photographs of the bomb scenes and letters from the bomber to newspapers, Dr. Brussel issued the following directive to police in a city in Connecticut: "Look for a heavy man. Foreign born. Roman Catholic. Single. Lives with a brother or sister. When you find him, chances are he'll be wearing a double-breasted suit. Buttoned." Based on this profile, police identified a suspect named George Metesky. Metesky matched the profile in almost every respect. Indeed, when the officers, after arriving at his house to arrest him, asked him to get dressed for the trip to the station, he emerged in a double-breasted suit.., buttoned.

John Douglas, a profiler for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the inspiration for the character Jack Crawford in the novel and movie The Silence of the Lambs, recounts a similar story. Assisting in the investigation of unsolved murders that occurred along hiking paths in heavily wooded areas around San Francisco, Douglas presented a profile to a crowded room of sheriffs deputies and investigators, describing a white blue-collar worker in his low- to mid-thirties with an IQ well above normal. After asserting that the offender would have a background of bed-wetting, fire- starting, and cruelty to animals, Douglas gave a pregnant pause and added: "Another thing ... the killer will have a speech impediment." According to Douglas, the officers in the room reacted skeptically, one even asking sarcastically if he came to that conclusion because the stab wounds looked like "stutter stab[s]." Like Holmes, Douglas was vindicated when police arrested a suspect who closely resembled the profile, all the way down to his lifelong stutter.

However, the similarities between modern-day profilers and Holmes become more important and consequential when the dramatic flair and glorified results extend beyond investigative work and enter the criminal courts as expert testimony. Douglas and other FBI agents from the Behavioral Analysis Unit ("BAU") have refined and popularized the offender profiling techniques originally developed by Dr. Brussel and BAU founders Howard Teten and Patrick Mullany. Offender profiling originally was developed to assist local law enforcement in narrowing leads and identifying suspects in difficult serial killer and rapist cases. Not long after its widespread adoption in such investigations, profilers began assisting in the prosecution of these crimes. Scholars have not explored whether courts admit or reject expert offender profiling testimony, perhaps because they have assumed that judges would rarely, if ever, admit it in criminal trials because it represents improper character testimony.