When I’m not working on active cases for law enforcement, I enjoy relaxing in the early evening hours watching true crime documentaries that involve unusual topics. And if they include an element of forensic facial imaging, I’m ‘all in’.
Such was the case with Netflix’s 5-part documentary, The Devil Next Door.
The series profiled John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian auto worker and naturalized U.S. citizen living in Cleveland with his family. In the 1970’s the United States government identified Demjanjuk as a Nazi SS member during World War II.
War records and testimony from death camp survivors identified Demjanjuk as “Ivan the Terrible”; a feared SS guard at the Treblinka Concentration Camp.
While at Triblenka, Demjanjuk, was accused of being responsible for the torture and murder of over 1 million Jewish prisoners during World War II.
Stripped of his United States citizenship, he was deported to Israel where he was prosecuted for war crimes. From there began a legal odyssey spanning 3 countries over a period of several decades. Those who enjoy legal procedure will be interested to see how these different courts treat eyewitness testimony and evidence. Not to mention, the competing political interests involved.
But, that’s where I’ll stop, lest I spoil it for you.
Besides, with five parts and so many twists and turns, I won’t be able to do the story justice. You’ll have to see it yourself.
What I will talk about – briefly, is the role that facial comparison and analysis played during the trial in Israel.
During the investigation, a Nazi identification card surfaced in the name of Ivan Demjanjuk. (Photo on left.) It was thought by some to be a counterfeit document manufactured by the Soviet Union.
But, when compared to a driver’s license photo (Photo on right.) later issued to the accused, John Demjanjuk, you can see a resemblance.
Was this a case of a harmless doppelganger? Or, a carefully crafted bogus ID setting up Demjanjuk as an unwitting dupe?
I guess the answer depends on which side of the argument that you’re on.
During the trial, two experts, a Dentist/Professor with a background in anthropology and a facialidentification expert from the German Police, both reached the same conclusion that they were in fact the same person.
At that time there was very little, if any training at all, in forensic facial comparison and analysis. Today, there are courses conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, private defense contractors and facial recognition system vendors.
Forensic organizations that research and validate methods are currently working on standards for training and best practices.
For more information, visit: https://fiswg.org/index.htm
These cases are difficult because the photos are often poor quality and off-pose. There is also much expectation that comes with a rendered expert opinion.
In 2015, I was called upon to participate in a History Channel documentary detailing the 1962 escape from Alcatraz by Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin. Photographic evidence had surfaced suggesting that the Anglin brothers had survived the dark, cold trip across the San Francisco Bay. My opinion was that it was “highly likely that the new photographs were in fact the Anglin brothers and that it appeared as if they survived.
When asked off-camera if I could make a positive identification; I explained that absent fingerprints, dental x-rays or DNA, nobody could prove positively from a photograph.
Yet, photographs are in themselves compelling evidence. Especially, if there is a strong resemblance backed up by the opinion of a trained expert.
In the Demjanjuk case I recommend you tune into Netflix to view the evidence and eyewitness testimony.
All-in-all it’s an interesting portrayal of a case that has many twists and turns. It’s a great binge-watch if you have time.
In the end you will be left wondering - was Demjanjuk a cold-blooded mass murderer? Or was he the quiet dedicated auto worker and family man introduced in part one of the series?
I guess you’ll have to decide for yourself. I would be interested in your opinion.
Feel free to e-mail me at: [email protected] and let me know.