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Grandma with a pencil putting criminals in jail

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- Guilty pleasure: Marla Lawson likes to go to court and eyeball the criminals she has drawn in charcoal so police can track them down.

"I hate to admit this, but it feels good to sit in court, stare across the room and know what you put on paper looks like the man over in the chair," Lawson, a forensic artist, said. "Yes! It took a grandmother with a pencil to catch you!"

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Lawson came to the Albany Police Department's Law Enforcement Center to help with the investigations into two crimes. She took her pencil and rendered a drawing of the suspects in an aggravated assault and in a convenience store robbery.

She's been in the area so often creating sketches for the Albany Police and the Dougherty County Police departments that she talks with Albany Police Investigator Charlie Roberts the way old friends do.

"He is the greatest and hardest working investigator in the state," Lawson said. "If he calls, I get in the car and come here."

Lawson, of Sharpesburg, travels the state drawing about 300 sketches a year. Many police departments call on her talent.

"It is practice," Lawson said. "You do 300 sketches a year for this long and you get good at it. I go all over the state drawing ugly people."

As an artist, Lawson doesn't look back or keep score on the number of criminals she has helped put away in an almost 40-year career.

Probably the most well-known case she worked on was that of Eric Rudolph.

Domestic terrorist Rudolph known as "The Olympic Park Bomber" set off bombs in the Southeast killing two and injuring 150. In 2005 Rudolph took a plea bargain to serve five consecutive life sentences.

Lawson's sketches take about 90 minutes to two hours to complete. They are so well done that Roberts feels she'll get the face right even though the convenience store robber wore a cover on his face.

Roberts said, "She just gets people to talk about the face and it comes out."

While Lawson drew sketches from a victim's descriptions Friday, she also used what she called "memory aides." She spread hundreds of pictures out on a table before a witness.

From the pictures, a witness could pick a haircut, a mustache, a forehead, the shape of a nose and more that resemble the parts he saw of a suspect. Or his memory would be jogged by talking to Lawson.

The convenience store robber's facial covering had a hole for his mouth. The witness told Lawson the robber's lips were cracked, not chapped, but cracked. She put the cracks in the sketch's lips.

Over time the sketch went from a six -- unacceptable, it could be anybody -- to a seven, or recognizable as a distinct man. Sometimes Lawson doesn't think a sketch will look like the criminal at all. Once the criminal is caught, many times it turns out the sketch is an exact match.

"When you feel best," Lawson said, "is when you know you helped get them off the street."