Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Usual Suspects

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. [1] 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


Orhan Kahn said...

...he and the victim together went on tour throughout the country giving talks about the dangers and unreliability of eyewitness testimony.

Only in America!

DJan said...

I have been burned again and again by my memory making up things that feel and seem as real as if they had happened. I simply cannot imagine why eyewitness testimony is given such credence. I'm sure that law enforcement knows it too; they just want to put SOMEBODY away. Who cares if it's the actual perp?

I read about those people who traveled the country making presentations. Awesome.

Paul said...

Justice is supposed to be blind. Often it seems that witnesses are as well.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Orhan Is that a good thiing or a bad thing?

DJan We have been brought up to accept "Seeing is Believing" but as I have tried to demonstrate, the clearly is not true. We can mis-perceive and misinterpret what we "think" we see quite easily.

Paul True, but mostly witnesses are motivated to see that "justice is done". In doing so they may try a little to hard toward that end rather than be purely objective - a difficult task for most people in general.

Anonymous said...

This is such an important topic. The Innocence Project has exonerated over 200 individuals mostly via DNA evidence; and most of those innocent people were convicted because of eyewitness testimony. The last time I checked the Innocent Project's website, 17 individuals were exonerated ... after they were executed for the crimes they did not commit.

And judges are routinely persuaded by prosecutors (at least around here) to keep expert testimony regarding the unreliability of eyewitness identification out of trial. Sometimes we wonder if justice isn't merely blind, but if it's even the goal.

Kay Dennison said...

At this point in my life, my memory has become a tad unreliable so I try to write important stuff down asap.
One never know when one will need it.

Anonymous said...

This is an extremely important issue. Especially in cases where the death penalty is at stake. It is very common indeed for those of different races to be unable to identify each other. "They all look alike to me" is a very dangerous situation for those accused of a crime. I am not a fan of universal DNA collection, but in some cases, DNA evidence is more helpful for the defense than the prosecution.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dissenter The Innocence Project has done GREAT work. That ALONE should be the greatest argument against Capital Punishment.

Kay Oh I write stuff down, then THIS happens to me.

Nance said...

This is a well-researched piece and a well-documented phenomenon that police officers and the courts are well familiar with. I, of course, am entirely immune to such foibles;^)

Cognitive Diss, I was sorry to read last week (where was it, Scientific American? No, The Atlantic?) that there are a handful of cases that foiled the Innocence Project with false positives. They are still such an important corrective.

Crime numbers in the US have gone down steadily in the period that's seen growing reliance on DNA testing, but I have no idea how those things might correlate. Malcolm Gladwell did not refer to this in his speculation about violent crime rates, so I'd be very interested in seeing something about it, if you're in research mode, Robert.

Antares Cryptos said...

Our facial recognition is actually not that great. In a moment of stress, it's even worse.

This is the one positive aspect that has come out of the watchful eyes of cameras and cell phones.

adrielleroyale said...

I'm pretty sure I'd be a crap witness - I might remember the .... yah, nope. Plus cops make me nervous anyway, not sure why LOL! The worst crime I commit is speeding (regularly). I blame it on my genetic lead foot... ;)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Nance There were some DA's offices that were intentionally clearing out their evidence lockers and destroying potentially exculpatory DNA evidence. Reprehensible. Still there are criminals who ask for the DNA tests knowing fully well that they are guilty of the crime. One has to wonder what that is about?

Cryptos I am amazed how many surveillance videos are so blurry and out of focus. On some of those images I find it difficult to believe one could identify anyone with certainty.

Adrielle Ah, that is why they have "photo radar" which they can then mail you the picture of the pretty woman without makeup behind the wheel along with a summons and bail amount.

TechnoBabe said...

I wouldn't want my life to depend on an eye witness report. People man mean well, and some do not, and relying in the hazy memory of a bunch of tv brainwashed slow wits is just stupid. The numbers show there are way too many people locked away who are truly innocent.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Actually having been on two juries, I now would never depend on a jury to dispense justice either - accused of a crime I would take my chances in front of a judge alone. People really allow their emotions to guide themselves over the facts every time.

billy pilgrim said...

i was on a jury and started daydreaming about 30 minutes into the trial. i don't think my fellow jurors were rocket scientists either. i guess that's why good lawyers make big money, swaying the rubes.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Billy Donno, the trial I sat on the jury for, the defense lawyer was his client's own worst enemy! I wanted to tell the counselor how he practically blew his client's case... but as you say, they get the big money, they're supposed to earn it.

Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living said...

I can remember faces from 25 years ago, people I have had no contact with but their face is still clear even though it's 25 years older. But I'm sure that's different. Very interesting post though.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Gutsy I can as well, usually some social interaction is in play to help create memories. The chance encounter during the stress of a crime or casual contact might be more difficult. The only exception I can conceive is if the witness personally knows the identity of the accused from previous contact.

James said...

We need not worry.

Eventually we will not need to remember anything.

As the Total Information Awareness system continues to keep us safe by gathering everything that everybody has ever done; then matching that result to what we're doing now, our Protectors will, with incredible accuracy, be able to predict when something will happen.

Not a crime, per se; that will be for later iterations of the system. Criminalizing everything will need to come first, but only after we are all totally assured that we are safe, you know, from the terrorists, who will be identified before they are radicalized, or not.

(Nice place you got here. I found you over at my wife's (TechnoBabe) blog.

Robert the Skeptic said...

James Welcome, I love TechnoBabe's blog. Yes well we have already criminalized videotaping police while they are on duty. And the TSA is patting down 5 year olds and the elderly in wheel chairs. As you suggest, We should feel pretty safe by now, shouldn't we?

Jayne said...

This is precisely why I believe we need to abolish the death penalty.
A few years back I had to go into the local PD to ID a guy who had stolen a deposit from us. He was a house painter who required a $2,000. deposit. He had been recommended by another painter and he seemed decent enough, still, I'd never given anyone a deposit like that, and I later realized why I was uncomfortable.

At the police station, I was showed a book of photos with a row of the same light hair and light eyed gentlemen. I knew who the guy was immediately. But then, did I? Wait, this other guy looks like he could be the one... It was crazy, I was so afraid to finger the wrong guy. When I finally settled on my initial impression, I was told that the guy was a con artist and he'd cheated several people in the last few years, just as he did us. I felt better, but is was a nerve wracking experience.

Very well done post, Robert.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jayne It is so easy to make a mistake in identity, unless it is someone who is personally known to us. But it is a tragedy if an innocent person does the time for someone else's crime.