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Face the face

MSU prof helped identify famous ‘kissing sailor’

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Norman Sauer looked at The New York Times Monday and spotted a familiar hairline.

We’ve all seen that hairline, but few people have studied it as carefully as Sauer has. One of the 20th century’s most famous images is Alfred Eisenstadt’s Life magazine photo of a celebratory kiss in Times Square on Aug. 14, 1945, at the end of World War II.

George Mendonsa, who claimed for decades that he was the sailor engaged in arm-locking and lip-locking a nurse in the photo, died Sunday at 95.

Sauer, a retired forensic anthropologist at Michigan State University, was one of several experts who analyzed the photo, compared it with other photos of Mendonsa and came to a consensus that his claim was probably valid.

It was unusual work in a career devoted mainly to helping prosecutors and defense attorneys analyze crime images.

“It was my most high-profile job, but this is not a high stakes case,” Sauer said by phone Tuesday. “It was a lot of fun. High stakes is trying to identify or exclude somebody that’s committed a murder.”

The stakes must have seemed high to Mendonsa, who clung so tightly to his claim that he was the kissing sailor that he sued Life magazine for not positively identifying him.

“How many people in a lifetime do something famous?” Mendonsa said in a 1995 interview with the Daily Mail.

In 1980, when Life ran the photo a second time, dozens of men claimed to be the kissing sailor, 11 of whom had a credible claim, according to the Times. (Three women claimed to be the nurse.)

In 2010, Sauer was approached by Lawrence Verria, author of the 2012 book, “The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II.”

Earlier studies, including a 3-D mapping of Mendonsa’s face, had failed to disprove his claim. Sauer and his MSU students took a few weeks to do a fresh analysis.

Sauer used methods that were similar, but not identical, to those he uses in a forensic identification. The most useful tool, in the kissing sailor’s case, was morphological comparison. “We take the face apart and look at a number of individual characteristics, and see if they’re consistent from one image to the next,” Sauer said. “Starting from the top of the head — hairline, height and shape of the forehead, the eyebrows, the shape of the nose, the mouth — all these things have to match.”

There’s a bit of art to Sauer’s science. He often has to take into account changes in facial expression and changes caused by aging. In criminal cases, Sauer takes his own pictures of the suspect to get the exact same angle as a surveillance image or photograph of the known perpetrator.

“I never took pictures of Mendonsa.

I just used available photographs,” he said.

To complicate matters, the sailor’s face was tilted at an angle more suitable for osculation than morphological analysis.

But Mother Nature gives Sauer a lot to work with. Eyebrows alone have dozens of listed traits — shape, thickness, density, width, curvature and distance apart from each other.

“In this case, I couldn’t find any significant differences,” he said. “I found no way of excluding Mendonsa as the kissing sailor.”

Note the cautious language. When Sauer testifies in criminal cases, he tells defense attorneys there is no way of knowing for sure whether a person in one photo is the same person in another. He can only exclude (or not exclude) suspects from consideration.

Defense attorneys sometimes bring Sauer in just to caution the jury about the limitations of the analysis. Prosecutors are often disappointed that Sauer can’t provide positive identification. However, if Sauer doesn’t find a deal-breaking mismatch of features from one photo to another, the evidence can help to build a broader case against the defendant.

“I used the very same techniques on a particularly heinous murder that took place in Lansing,” Sauer said.

In 2001, Ingham County assistant prosecutor Mike Ferency called upon Sauer’s testimony in the case of a robbery-murder at a Marathon gas station.

Sauer analyzed video and still frames from surveillance tapes that captured the crime and superimposed them over photographs of the defendant. He testified that he could not conclude that the defendant, Ron Allen, was not the person on the tape.

Sauer’s analysis was consistent with other evidence presented at trial and Allen was convicted of the crime.

In the case of the kissing sailor, Sauer did exclude “one or two” other candidates after finding features that were inconsistent between the Eisenstadt photograph and other photographs.

“Often, people think that’s a weak application of science, but that’s the scientific method,” Sauer said.

“You don’t prove things in science, typically, you set out to disprove them. If there are enough unsuccessful attempts at disproving, what are you left with?” Even modern computer programs and phones with facial recognition software can only exclude people from consideration, Sauer said, not positively identify them.

Verria told the Times that after “several experts in different fields,” including Sauer, have looked at the case, the evidence is “overwhelming” that Mendonsa was the kissing sailor.

As always, Sauer was careful to distinguish his personal opinion from his professional conclusion.

“Yeah, I think it’s him,” Sauer said. “Is it him? I don’t know.”

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