Eyewitnesses: How Reliable Are They? Part 2

By: Lisa Ferrari
By: Lisa Ferrari

February 16, 2006

Eyewitness accounts can be some of the most powerful testimony during criminal trials, but how reliable are eyewitness and victim accounts? We decided to simulate a robbery and put our "victims" memories to the test to see if they could point out their attackers.

"Where's your wallet? Give me your wallet now," yelled the armed robber.

The suspects take off running and our victims call 911

"911 can I help you?"

"Someone just knocked me down and stole my wallet," said the male victim.

"What did the person look like?" responded the 911 operator.

"One was a white guy in a red coat and a plaid shirt and there was a second person with dark clothing. I don't even know what race [he was]," said the male victim. "I don't know either," said the female victim.

The 911 operator asked if the robbers had any weapons.

"I don't recall seeing a weapon," said the male victim. "There was a gun. There was a gun. The white guy was running towards us with a gun," said the female victim.

Detectives arrived on the scene and took our victims statements.

"The descriptions they gave were not real close to [who] the actual people were, which is not that uncommon," said Charlottesville Police Lt. Gary Pleasants.

Both describe the white male as wearing a red vest or a red shirt. The truth - the only red he was wearing was a bandana.

Our female victim remembered seeing a gun from the beginning. But if you remember our male victim told the 911 operator that there was no gun. Whether his wife jogged his memory or he later recalled more details, he did correctly tell detectives he saw a blue handgun.

Following police procedures we conduct a show up, where our victims are asked to identify a suspect in person within minutes of the crime.

Both our male and female victims were not able to identify the white male they described to the police.

On the following day our victims try to point out the second suspect in a photo line up.

"I doubt that I could correctly identify any of these people as the one who [was] part of the mugging," said the male victim. The female said she didn't think it was any of them. She was correct. The black male suspect was not pictured in the photo line up.

Both witnesses couldn't make positive identifications and criminal law experts say that normal, as victims often have fragile recollections of what happened.

"If they pick someone out of a photo line up[and the cop says] 'Good job, you've identified the suspect.' Those kind of comments can create certainty that the victim never had," said University of Virginia Law professor Brandon Garrett.

As for our eyewitnesses, police say they did a good job of honestly reporting what they thought they saw and they were not anxious to make an identification they were not 100% sure of.

Studies show people aren't very good at identifying someone they saw for just a short period of time. In fact, the studies show error rates are as high as fifty percent.

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