Witness identification put to the test

February 5, 2013 8:20:19 PM PST
An Eyewitness News exclusive investigation into the reliability of eyewitnesses.

Eyewitness News asks, "What did you see?"

Eyewitness identification, which is used extensively in criminal cases, is increasingly under fire, so Eyewitness News decided to put it to the test.

The scene: An angry tirade by a hostile customer at a convenience store in Nyack, New York. He turns and bumps into a young woman on line. Seconds later, she notices her wallet is gone. By then, the suspect has bolted.

He's not really a thief, but a criminal justice student at St. Thomas Aquinas College working with Eyewitness News on an experiment about eyewitness identification.

His victim is also a student, and we've enlisted the cooperation of the store, and alerted the Orangetown Police Department.

So what did eyewitnesses see?

"He was about 20 years old, probably about 5'6". He had blond hair, short, was wearing a baseball hat forward, black, wearing a dark blue sweatshirt, fire engine, in red," one witness said.

But after that the descriptions changed.

"Could you tell me what he was wearing?" Eyewitness News Investigative reporter Sarah Wallace asked.

"Not really, t-shirt," a witness said.

"Sweatshirt?" Wallace asked.

"No. No. Just a t-shirt," the witness answered.

"Did he have anything on his head?" Wallace asked.

"Don't believe so," the witness answered.

"Did he have a hat?" Wallace asked.

"I do think he had a hat on," a witness said.

"Are you sure?" Wallace asked.

"I'm not positive, no," the witness said.

One woman, who didn't want to be identified, misidentified pretty much every detail.

"Did he have anything on his head?" Wallace asked.

"No," the woman answered.

"Definitely not wearing anything on his head?" Wallace asked.

"Definitely not, but could have been," she said, "What I think he was wearing is jeans and a sweater."

Karen Newirth is an expert in eyewitness identification with the Innocence Project.

"Human memory is fallible. Human memory is not like a videotape. In this day and age, people are looking at their phones, they're paying attention to something else. We don't carefully observe what's happening around us," Newirth said, "Your experiment shows that people give their best guess of what they think they saw."

Newirth noticed how the witnesses in our experiment responded to suggestive questions.

Our criminal justice students both want to be police officers, and learned an invaluable lesson.

"Not to trust eyewitnesses for sure. Do the work. Do the investigative work before you, before you assume something. Definitely," said Tim Tedesco, a student.

"Were you surprised at how many people were wrong?" Wallace asked.

"Yeah, especially because some of the people were standing next to him, and they didn't know," said Kristina Simon, a student.

Figures show that in DNA cases alone, 75% of people later found to be innocent were convicted because of misidentification by witnesses.

New Jersey and Connecticut have changed the way police and the courts deal with identification evidence, but New York has not.


If you have a tip about this or any other issue you'd like investigated, please give our tipline a call at 877-TIP-NEWS. You may also e-mail us at the.investigators@abc.com.

Follow Jim Hoffer on Twitter at twitter.com/nycinvestigates and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jimhoffer.wabc

Follow Sarah Wallace on Twitter at twitter.com/sarahwallacetv and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sarahwallace.wabc

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