Picture this: You are walking home alone. It’s dark, and you feel like someone is watching you. Suddenly someone comes around the corner and threatens you, taking your things. It all happens in a matter of seconds. Your attacker gets away with everything, and you walk away with nothing but memories of the moment your life was on the line and the person that made you feel unsafe.
It is those memories that the police will use to paint a picture of what happened, hopefully leading to an arrest of the person responsible. But according to experts, those memories can be contaminated within seconds, with many variables in play.
“In some circumstances human vision can be most excellent and other instances where you have time constraint, movement, low lighting, emotional distress, and fear, the ability of the person to make eyewitness identification is severely compromised.” Dr. Paul Michel is a visual scientist and former homicide investigators. He said that what we think we see is not always what we actually see.
“The human eye to observe a scene, unlike a video camera, has to be constantly moving and adapting to different lighting situations and often, it’s beyond the capability of the human eye to make such adaptations because it takes time for the eyeball, as a sensory organ, whereas videos and cameras adapt much more rapidly,” Michel said.
Michel noted another factor working against you is your peripheral vision. When you are fixated on something, you are usually on focused on the center point. The details in our periphery get lost, and our brain tries to fill in those holes. “Things that didn’t make sense, well, the brain puts in missing pieces that should be there in order to make it make sense.”
Making matters worse, Michel said that if there are other witnesses, they can affect your memory in the time it takes for police to get to the crime scene.
“Sometimes bad information, can be spread from one witness to another and those witnesses put together in their recollection, both what they think they saw and heard and experienced, and what they were told that another person was told and saw and experienced.”
Sgt. Ryan Kroeker with the Bakersfield Police Department said this happens all the time, and it’s why they try and separate the witnesses. “We want to try and get an accurate account of what occurred, getting them separated so they can’t talk to each other so we can get the most accurate information that we can.”
Defense Attorney Clayton Campbell said that not separating the witnesses is a major problem. “The trouble with memory is it's not a static thing. Memories can be influenced by subsequent influencers. For example, every time the memory is tested you can alter the memory.”
Campbell has studied the science of eyewitness identification extensively because he has helped victims who have been wrongfully identified.
According to the Innocence Project, “eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in more than 70% of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide.”
“We have the technology and science to be about as certain about anything as we have ever been in the history of the world so there's no excuse for us to continually follow these patterns of improper eyewitness identification procedures, ignoring the science and convicting the wrong people. There's no excuse for that,” Campbell said.
The procedures Campbell is referring to are lineups and six-pack photo identification—methods he says are outdated and filled with bias. Sgt. Kroeker disagrees.
“So we try to put as many countermeasures in place so people can understand we are not trying to be leading, we’re not trying to get them to identify someone that is not responsible, but get an accurate depiction of what they can remember.”
He said that officers follow the facts, and if they are hearing consistencies, they create the lineups based off of that information.
And that takes us back to square one—that information often comes from what people see—so how can you ensure what you see and what you tell an investigator is the same thing?
“Sometimes we have to take action and we will do that based on the circumstances, but a lot of times the best thing to do, especially when something violent is happening, take a deep breath and try to process as much information as you can,” Kroeker said.
That information can range from color of clothing to small details on the face.
“There are a lot of people who share the same age, gender, ethnic background, we have similarities in appearance, but the presence or absence of a small scar, a mole, longer ears, shorter ears, droopy eyelid, smaller eyelashes, one of a myriad of different facial features, is what differentiates one person from another,” Dr. Michel said.
But when it comes down to that moment your life may be on the line – all three experts we talked to agree that it is nearly impossible to make an effort to look for details in a person’s face, especially if there is a weapon involved.
Dr. Michel said, “The eye will fixate, the brain will fixate, on the threat. One’s survival relies on whether the assailant is going to use the weapon. So that is more important than giving a description on whether the suspect had a moustache or had particular facial identifying marks.”
“If you're in the middle of that situation, I do not expect you to think back to this news story and think oh what is it that that guy said I should do? Nobody expects you to be able to do that,” Campbell said.
Though you aren’t expected to remember anything at the time, what you can recall makes all the difference in the courtroom.
Dr. Michel said he think the limitations of the human eye should be challenged in court. “Eyewitness identification, by itself, can be very, very convincing because the court, the jury, is very sympathetic to the victim of a crime and the juries want to do the right thing. If the victim, or the witness, believes in their heart that they are describing what they think they saw, they could be very, very convincing.”
But they also can be very wrong. Campbell says that the last thing these victims or witnesses want to admit is that the person that committed the crime is still out there, or that the police arrested the wrong person. “You don't want to acknowledge that because that means that you're still in danger,” he said.
This leads victims to convince themselves that they’ll never forget the face of the person who wronged them.
“I believe that people who express with such confidence that they will never forget that face, I believe that they believe that. So I don't think that they are lying. A lie is when you say something that's not true on purpose. I think they’re mistaken and now I think it's far more common than people let on that there are mistaken,” Campbell said.
So, even though you say it’s a face you’ll never forget – you may have forgotten within seconds of seeing it.
Sgt. Kroeker said it’s okay not to be certain. “I’m more caring about the person surviving and living to see another day.”