On a New York street witnesses were being interviewed by the police following a deadly subway shooting. When a woman was asked by the police investigating the scene if she saw who the shooter was, she pointed to the young man who had already been placed in the back of a police car. The young man was later arrested for the crime.
A former employee of an armored card company was arrested and put on trial for a brutal beating and robbery of his formal employer. When police questioned the robbery victims, they were shown a picture of their only suspect, the former employee. Yet even though the perpetrator had worn a mask, the witnesses identified him as the robber.
After looking through books of mug-shots, a rape victim was asked later to try to identify her attacker in a police line-up. She picked out the familiar face in the line-up. The man was later convicted for the rape.
All these are actual cases – in all three, eyewitness testimony resulted in the arrest, and in one case, a conviction. In fact, all three suspects were completely innocent of these crimes.
We tend to believe that eyewitness testimony is the most reliable form of evidence. But in recent years, findings are illustrating how fallible our perception and memories actually are. If you watched the video in my previous post, “Eyes Wide Shut", were you one of the many who completely missed seeing the gorilla stroll through the middle of the frame the FIRST time you watched?
Studies have shown that jurors often do not understand, as a matter of common sense, what makes some eyewitness identifications more or less reliable than others. For example, a witnesses’ assuredness in their confidence is not a good predictor of identification accuracy. Add to this the stress which may have been involved during the incident which can reduce the ability to recall details of the face.  Witnesses can also be influenced by cross-cultural bias or their memory influenced by information learned following the incident.
In the case of the subway shooting; the witness interviewed by the police did recognize the young man from the subway – but he, like her, had only been another subway passenger. However because the young man had been placed in the back of the patrol car, she made the assumption that the police had arrested the perpetrator. She was only trying to be helpful to the police during the initial investigation.
During the robbery trial of the former armored car employee who was apparently wearing a mask during the crime; his defense attorneys demonstrated that the witnesses were completely unable to recognize identically masked pictures of popular celebrities such as Harrison Ford. The suspect had been suggested to the witnesses by the police; they accepted the suspect’s guilt in spite of having no way to recognize the accused, or anyone, while wearing a mask.
The rape victim had been attacked in a darkened room. Later when presented with the opportunity to identify the suspect in a police line-up, she recognized one of the men she had previously seen in the mug shot book; they were indeed the same person - but he was NOT the person who had actually committed the crime. Interestingly after the man’s conviction was later overturned, he and the victim together went on tour throughout the country giving talks about the dangers and unreliability of eyewitness testimony.
The eyes can be deceived; memory is malleable and subjective. Internal biases and expectations can confirm or erode that which we believe we have witnessed. It is natural for our minds to attempt to make sense of what we perceive and paint a picture of reality. But a number of factors can color that picture with devastating consequences.
1. Schmechel, O’Toole, Easterly & Loftis, 2006, Beyond the Ken, Testing Jurors Understanding of Eyewitness Reliability