Marla Lawson Put a Face to Crime

Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s forensic artist draws to get criminals off the street

Marla Lawson’s artwork ranks among the most realistic and recognizable in the country, but no sane collector wants to hang her masterpieces above the mantel. Blame her unwitting models, who have varied in size, coloring, tattoos, and scars but generally share the same gleam in the eye—that look of desperate, crazy malice, with pupils unnaturally dilated or constricted, depending on the drugs.

“I usually start with the eyes because that’s what people tend to remember first in their descriptions,” says Lawson, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s longtime, seen-it-all forensic artist, who travels to crime scenes all over the state with her sketch pad and a satchel full of decades-old mug shots, sorted by race and gender. “I tell witnesses, ‘Look through as many of these monsters as you can stand for resemblances,’ and then I start drawing mean, ugly faces to get these nuts off the street.”

To demonstrate, she renders a vaguely Cro-Magnon brow line for the bureau’s Cleveland office, which is responding to two stickups in North Georgia. Lawson swipes her charcoal pencil and smudges in the shadows and planes of cheekbones, delineating a gristly, defiant-looking man in his mid-twenties with a five o’clock shadow. She holds it up for assessment from the man he robbed, a Clarkesville store manager, and asks, “Sugar, did I get his age right, you think?”

He gasps quietly and says, “The eyes are just right, believe me, but not quite so much hair?” She switches to her white pencil and says, “I’ll take some off the top then. I’ll bet this is a local doper, and somebody will recognize him. They’ll say, ‘That’s Fred, and he came into some money last week,’ and then we’ll nab ’im good . . . ”

Lawson, sixty-two, prattles while she works, and her clucking, unfiltered, maternal manner—along with the photocopylike verisimilitude of her work—relaxes victims and amuses her colleagues, who regard her as a colorful, and mystifying, institution.

“I’ve never seen Marla do a sketch that was off, even just a little,” says GBI agent Joe Montgomery. “Her drawing will look just like their driver’s license photo every time. She captures their personality somehow. I don’t understand how she does it, but it’s invaluable to solving cases.”

Lawson, who grew up in Atlanta, never aspired to become one of the nation’s top forensic artists—or an artist, period. “All’s I ever wanted to be was a secretary,” she says, recalling her early days as a “Kelly girl” for the Atlanta Police Department, where her father worked. “I got a D in art,” she says. She earned spare change, though, doodling for “drunks staggering out of Underground Atlanta.” Her father suggested she draw portraits of the lieutenant’s children. It wasn’t long before detectives who were stalled on their cases turned to her. “The first criminal I really remember doing was James Walraven, the ‘Bathtub Strangler,’” she says. “That’s when I thought I could do this.”

Since then, her work has helped nab hundreds of perps, but her most famous sketch is the wanted poster for Centennial Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph.

“They give me way too much glory for Rudolph, because I drew it from a photograph,” she says. “One of his victims was upset because she said I made him look sweet, like Jesus. I was just drawing him the way he looked, and he was one of those rare ones who looked hot. I can’t help the way they’re made.”

Lawson, who produces around 300 drawings a year, is training her twenty-nine-year-old daughter, Kelly, for the job.

“These faces’ll haunt your dreams,” she warns, mother to daughter, as they pack up the pencils to head south to Savannah, for another portrait no one will want to frame. 

Photograph by Mike Colletta