Is face recognition (in conjunction with other forms of identification) once again the key to solving a crime mystery?

“I started to read about the shearers’ strike and I made a discovery. I found a photograph of the Strike Committee and there, standing up, in the middle is a person that I know was Joe Quinn. At this stage, he was calling himself Payne but I know him and recognise him as Joe Quinn from Gatton. I was so surprised to see that he was quite an influential member of the strike committee. And I remembered evidence that had been disregarded that Michael had a confrontation with a union official in a barber shop in north west Queensland and I wondered if the confrontation had been with this man, Joe Quinn.” – STEPHANIE BENNETT

This is a transcript from a story on the current affairs TV series Australian Story about a lady by the name of Stephanie Bennett who has spent years trying to solve the mystery of the horrific and vile Gatton murders. Bennett’s theory is that Quinn was the ringleader in the murders in company with others. I find her argument believable. Here are some more quotes from the transcript of the report:

“So Mum believes that Joe Quinn had been using aliases for years to evade the law. But he had a tattoo, he had some missing fingers, and he’d had a gunshot accident to the groin some years ago.” – ANGELA O’MALIA

“And under the name Adams, he is described as having one tattoo on his left forearm…” – STEPHANIE BENNETT

My knowledge of critical thinking and fallacies in decision-making tells me that questions need to be asked about this kind of evidence. Was the tattoo an exact match, visually or by description? How common was it for men at the time to have a tattoo on the left forearm, missing fingers or a gunshot wound to the groin? One needs to always consider base rates within the relevant population before deciding that some characteristic is unusual or abnormal or significant in some way. One must also ask how reliable was Bennett’s visual recognition of Quinn in the photo. But I guess such doubts might be unnecessary given the info that Quinn lost his job and was sent to jail for past crimes. One can only assume that this conviction was based on good evidence available at the time.

This interesting mystery is one of countless demonstrations of the importance of excellent face memory ability in solving crimes and identifying suspects, and it also demonstrates why we should never discourage the habit of criminal types to adorn their bodies with tattoos. In doing this they give a gift to police and detectives who are trying to identify persons of interest. Faces and tattoos are highly visible, permanent and distinctive features that can be used to identify people who are suspected of committing crimes. It is a wonder and a paradox that the section of society which has the most to lose from having a tattoo is the one that appears to have the most enthusiasm for getting them.

The story of this Australian murder mystery is also a reminder that criminals and psychopaths can and often do have charismatic and popular personalities. Regardless of whether or not Quinn was involved in the murders, it appears that he had been a leader in one of Australia’s most important industrial disputes, but also had a criminal past and a habit of using false names, and his dark past eventually caught up with him resulting in some time in prison. There is a popular image of the criminal psychopaths as loners, but it is more often the case that they are leaders.

Australian Story. When Blood Runs Cold – Transcript: Monday, 17 June , 2013.

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  • Brian Gilroy  On June 18, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    It may well be that Mrs Bennett “recognised” Paine as Quinn because it suited her narrative. Her theory seems to be a case of having a theory and then manipulating the evidence to suit the theory.

  • C. Wright  On June 19, 2013 at 9:43 am

    I don’t think you or I should judge Bennett’s theory until we have read her entire book.

    Do you know if there are photos of Quinn as well as the Strike Committee on the internet to look at?

    My own opinion is that any theory that suggests that the crime was committed by only one person can be dismissed. I find that improbable in a number of ways.

  • Lyle F Reed.  On June 28, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    Mrs Bennetts theory of Joe Quinn as the possible Gatton murderer is some what plausible,although i find it impossible how he knew that the trio were even going to attend the dance that night,as the decision to attend the dance was only decided at the dinner table that evening that is why the trio were late in arriving.

  • C. Wright  On June 28, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    From what I saw on Australian Story I thought that the dance had been cancelled more than them being late, which seemed like it could have been some kind of set-up. I’m not up-to-date with all the details so perhaps I shouldn’t speculate.

  • Anonymous  On June 28, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    The most important statement made in the TV story was when she said she had facts wrong. There is no evidence that Paine and Quinn are the same person. What would need to be explained is how a itinerant petty crook became a leader of the strike under an assumed name.

  • C. Wright  On June 28, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    A charismatic crook is an expert in getting into advantagous situations which they have no right to attain.

  • Anna  On December 6, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    Hello all, my name is Anna and I am an UK based PhD researcher looking for super-recognizers for my eye-movement research. If you live in UK and would be interested in taking part, please contact me. Our lab will cover your travel expenses and reimburse you for your time. Contact details are available here- Cheers, Anna

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