Art on Trial

Confessions of a serial art therapist

Man's Art Convicts Him of Murder. Wait… What?!?

Tim Masters was wrongfully convicted of murder solely thru the art he created

So, here’s what happened. My last post, "Deftly Drawing Dexter", was about an episode on the television series Dexter, in which the fictional title character, a moral serial killer, was shown a series of drawings he had done as a child. The implication was that the drawings reflected the future murderer he would become.

I did my best to debunk this notion.

I later received a message from highly respected fellow PT blogger, renowned author, forensic psychologist and expert of all that is dark, Dr. Katherine Ramsland.[1] She liked my post; she also told me that it reminded her of the infamous Tim Masters case.

Yes, of course, the Tim Masters case; how did I not see this?

Wait… what? Who is Tim Masters?

I must confess, I was not familiar with this case. Then, I checked it out. How could I NOT be familiar with it? I am so embarrassed. It involved a murder, a testimony on the defendant’s art, a [wrongful] conviction based on this art, and exoneration many years later. How could I not know?

Lets back up.

In 1987, a young woman, Peggy Hettrick, was murdered in Fort Collins, Co. Her body was found in a field badly brutalized[2]. There was some reason to suspect then 15-year-old Tim Masters; the police searched his room, where they found many incriminating things—including upwards of 2000 drawings, doodles and narratives that illustrated graphically violent acts. After several days of questioning the police did not have enough evidence and released him. However, they continued to watch him closely over the years.

Ten years later the police arrested Tim Masters who was then an aviation mechanic for Learjet.

Why was he arrested? According to the literature available, the investigating officer contacted forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy, who believed the art that was collected—some at the time of the murder, some additional drawings completed after—strongly indicated that Masters was the killer. Meloy, who never spoke with Masters, testified on the art at the trial. Ultimately, Meloy believed the art was an accurate and vivid depiction of Hettrick's murder and considered it "framework evidence" in his testimony. Sources indicate the prosecution convinced the jury that Masters was guilty of murder mainly because of Meloy's condemning statements about the art.

Let me reiterate—it is believed that Masters was convicted solely on the art.

Granted—the art was gruesome; the few images I saw (and I imagine the ones published online are probably the most illustrative, given the desire to draw in viewers and rubberneckers) reflect someone that likely had a number of issues. They’re brutal, dark, alternating sketchiness and reinforced lines within an image, with a focus on the macabre—images I have seen numerous times from adolescents and even some adults. Granted, only a handful quite this brutal (see previous post), but still—similar.

Flash forward to 2008. After many years of appeals, Masters is finally freed—DNA testing indicated Masters was nowhere near Hettrick, but someone else was.  The doors opened, he was released, and many online bloggers who called for his freedom are vindicated.

As I practiced art therapy in a California prison I became familiar with Reid Meloy and his work, who was then climbing the pinnacle of the forensic psychological mountain. I found him fascinating and intelligent. I held him in high regard.

But, he was wrong.

However, unlike some of the online bloggers, I don’t fully blame Meloy. He was doing his job. Granted, he did it poorly. He based his conclusions on art that I feel he was not qualified to review, and never spoke with Masters—he did not assess him, did not ask him about the art, he did not even watch him create a single doodle. But he did what he was contracted to do. He was convincing in his testimony that ultimately won it for the prosecution.

Shoddy and possibly unprincipled, yes; but effective.

[Needless to say, his shine has since tarnished …sorry Dr. Meloy].

However, the defense missed a perfect opportunity to bring in [wait for it….] an art therapist to counter Meloy’s testimony. Someone who actually knew how to look at art, and who could speak from experience and knowledge rather than through reputation.

What might it have looked like? While I recognize that hindsight is 20/20, and that I benefit from the prosecution’s sloppy case, this is what I imagine I could have said if I was the art therapist brought in to testify.

Well, your honor, I am an art therapist who has been trained to assess drawings, and I have many years of experience of working with prison inmates and violent and aggressive clients, some who have murdered.

I assessed the defendant. I reviewed all of Masters’ art, I sat with the defendant and asked him about his art, and I had him do some artwork for me-we spent numerous hours together. [ummm...remember, this is a fictional account]

To be honest, over the years of seeing a lot of art done by aggressive and violent people, I have never seen a piece of art that I could point to and say definitively, that person will be a killer. I’ve even seen a lot of artwork done by murderers and serial killers in which there was very little that gruesomely reflected their horrific nature [Please refer to post “The Art of Murder(ers)”]

Like any projective assessment, the assessor can paint in broad strokes, perhaps assess for some potential diagnostic criteria, and even conclude that the defendant had a mental illness or had a tendency towards violence and aggression-- all of which means nothing unless the assessor actually meets with the defendant.

Through Masters’ art I can surmise that he may have anxiety, that he’s prone to the macabre and the dramatic, with even possibilities of anti-social tendencies. He demonstrates a somewhat disturbing palette with a tendency towards the grotesque. His sketches are well rendered and controlled with some moments of looseness and chaos, with singular compositions and themes.

These are similar to those created by any number of adolescents who have had a variety of issues—a few of them may have even gone on to kill someone, but the majority had not. In other words, the art was never a road map indicating that ultimately the artist would murder.

Look, I’m not saying Masters’ father should not have been concerned—if he was my 15 year old son, I would seek help, suspecting disturbing, underlying issues. But I may also recognize that these images may have simply come from a fertile imagination possibly fueled by many comic books and horror movies.  

So in my opinion, although the art may reflect some disturbing qualities, I do not believe that the strength of a conviction should emerge from these images alone.”

Or something like this. I hope I would be more articulate.

Of course, I would likely be answering many questions over many hours with a vigorous cross examination that I am sure would have left me reeling, rather than this concise diatribe more fitting for a Matlock episode.

I would also be up against Meloy, who would likely be far more eloquent. But hey, I’m an art therapist, aren’t I? He has nothing on me…

-------------------------------------------------------

[1] A special thank you to Dr. Ramsland.

[2] I’ve only recently become familiar with this case. For the sake of succinctness, I provide just a summary in this post. There are a great many details to this case and there are many blogs and online articles about this case. I recommend if you are interested, that you check them out. 

One site I found particulalry helpful, from which I also borrowed some of the images, is:

Free Tim Masters Because [http://freetimmastersbecause.blogspot.com/2007/12/drawings-or-productions-in-scary.html]

Also available is Tim Masters' book:Drawn to Injustice: The Wrongful Conviction of Timothy Masters  [with Steve Lehto]

 

 

David Gussak, PhD, ATR-BC, is professor and chairperson for the Florida State University Department of Art Education, and Clinical Coordinator of its Graduate Art Therapy Program.

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