Looks can be deceiving in witnessing a crime

That was the man who tried to rape her; she was sure of it.

She had seen him before, around the apartment complex where they both lived. But she said her most vivid memory was of William Gregory breaking into her apartment and attacking her.

Now Gregory was sitting across the courtroom. A lawyer was asking whether she could identify the man who had assaulted her.

She could, she said. So could another victim, a 71-year-old neighbor who had been raped a month later.

With both women swearing Gregory had attacked them, the case against him was overwhelming. He was convicted and served eight years of a 70-year sentence before DNA evidence proved he couldn’t have committed either crime.

“My life was snatched away from me,” Gregory said.

“I had a house, I had a car, I had a business. I had everything.”

A decade ago, experts thought cases like Gregory’s were extremely rare. But since 1987, at least 76 men have been released from jail in the United States because DNA evidence proved their innocence. Eyewitness testimony played a major role in almost all their convictions.

It is difficult to determine how many people are doing time for crimes they did not commit, though estimates by professors Brian Cutler and Steven Penrod in their 1995 book, “Mistaken Identification,” put the error rate at 0.5 percent, or 5,000 of the 1 million convictions a year.

“It’s the major cause of wrongful convictions,” said Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “I’m pretty sure of that.”

An Associated Press review covering more than two decades of psychology research indicates that eyewitness testimony could be sending innocent people to jail with distressing frequency.

Countless experiments show that human memory is fragile and malleable, but the justice system often treats it as an indelible record of events.

“The principle is that the memory is like a videotape,” said Boston defense lawyer James Doyle.

We often imagine our memories faithfully storing everything we see and do. But there is no mechanism in our heads that stores sensory perceptions as a permanent, unchangeable form.

Instead, our minds use a complex system to convert a small fragment of what we experience into a pattern of connections between nerve cells.

Researchers have learned in the past few decades that this system can be fooled. Other people can convince us we saw things that weren’t there. Things that never happened can be remembered just as vividly as actual events. And the most confident eyewitness can be wrong in trying to identify the perpetrator of a crime.

In the 1970s, Loftus and her colleagues performed experiments showing that incorrect information provided after an event could distort a person’s memory of it.

In one experiment, subjects watched a videotape depicting a traffic accident at a stop sign.

If Loftus then mentioned a “yield sign” being in the video, many subjects would pick up the wrong information. When asked later, they would swear they had seen “Yield” on the sign rather than “Stop.”

Further experiments showed that people’s memories could be swayed even more subtly.

If subjects watched a collision between two vehicles and then were asked, “How fast were the cars going when they made contact?” they gave a much lower figure than if they were asked, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?”

Eventually, psychologists found they could plant false memories through the power of suggestion. Subjects could be made to remember barns in pictures of empty fields and guns in the hands of robbers armed with screwdrivers.

“In some of my studies where people get misinformation, they can sometimes be more confident about their wrong answers than they are about the right ones,” Loftus said.

Other experiments have shown that the effect translates to eyewitness identifications of suspects.

In one, Gary Wells and Amy Bradfield of Iowa State University showed people a grainy surveillance video of a man and told them he had later shot a security guard. Then they presented their subjects with mug shots of five people and asked which one was the perpetrator.

It was an impossible task, because none of the five photos matched the man in the video. Nevertheless, each of the 352 subjects identified one of the mug shots as the man they had seen.

“People are pretty good at picking out the perpetrator if he’s there. They’re awfully bad at being able to detect that he’s not there,” Wells said.

False memories can wield incredible power. Jennifer Thompson, a North Carolina resident whose testimony sent an innocent man to prison for 11 years, reported dreaming of being raped by Ronald Cotton, even long after she learned he didn’t do it.

Both of the women who identified Gregory in the apartment rapes still insisted he was their attacker, even after DNA evidence proved he couldn’t have been.

“They don’t want to accept that they put the wrong man in prison,” Gregory said.


It’s easy to make a false memory. All you need is a friend and this list of words.

Read the words to your friend slowly (about one or two seconds per word).

Then ask your friend to remember as many of the words as possible.

Here’s the list: bed, rest, awake, tired, dream, wake, snooze, blanket, doze, slumber, snore, nap, peace, yawn, drowsy.

Most people can remember about half the words. But about 55 percent of people who take the test swear they remember the word “sleep,” which isn’t on the list.

The reason some people remember the word “sleep” is that words like “bed,” “snooze” and “doze” remind them of sleep.

“Thoughts that are sparked during an event can later be remembered as having occurred during that event,” said Kathleen McDermott of Washington University in St. Louis.

This is important to understanding eyewitness testimony because it suggests a way that witnesses might be fooled, said McDermott, who developed the test with colleague Henry Roediger III.

For example, people might see a crime being committed and think the perpetrator resembles somebody they have seen around their neighborhood once or twice.

Later, the witnesses might testify that the person they were reminded of committed the crime.

That may sound far-fetched, but it has happened in dozens of cases that were overturned by DNA evidence.


December 10, 2000
The Associated Press