KHQ SPECIAL REPORT: Investigating Accuracy of Eyewitness Account - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

KHQ SPECIAL REPORT: Investigating Accuracy of Eyewitness Accounts

SPOKANE, Wash. - Crime can strike anywhere across Spokane from a bank to a convenience store to a parking lot. You have seconds to react and to remember.

One of the most notorious crimes to impact Spokane was the backpack bomb, which crews found planted on the Martin Luther King Junior Day parade route. When the FBI launched their investigation, one of the first places agents started investigating was Auntie's Bookstore, across the street from where the backpack was found, to see if anyone saw what happened or the person responsible.

But days, or even months, after the crime how accurate could eyewitnesses be? Could you pick out the bad guy? Or risk sending an innocent person to prison?

It's why KHQ Local News did a test of its own.

With cameras watching, KHQ staged its own crime at fine jewelry boutique Finders Keepers on Second Avenue, dripping with sparkling bangles, baubles and beads. The three employees believed they're being featured for a story about small business. "This particular piece is our Victorian era," employee Nicole Chapman said.

But while they showed us around the store the real test was just walking in. Our own KHQ producer, Luke, pretended to browse for a present and ultimately picked out a piece of jewelry worth close to $3,000. "Can I see the necklace?" Luke asked.

The owner of Finders Keepers was in on the plan but the employees had no idea what was coming next. With bracelet in hand, Luke suddenly started yelling, "Get down on the ground. Right now. Get the (expletive) on the ground! Everybody get down on the ground right (expletive) now!"

For a moment, the women stood frozen. Then, panic set in. "He's stealing our bracelet!" employee Jourdan Dove blurted out. But before the employees could go any further, KHQ told them it was a mock up. "It's not real," KHQ Reporter Chelsea Kopta said.

Like the real thing, our crime went down in under a minute. Then, as if a real theft had been committed, we separated our eyewitnesses and asked them individually to describe the bad guy.

Nicole Chapman said, "I didn't catch the color of eyes and he was behind the counter so I couldn't see his clothes much."

Employee Rebecka Jean Anderson remembered he "Was probably 5'10", sandy blonde, like a tint of brown hair."

"He was wearing a black, zip up jacket," employee Dove said.

Surprisingly, the women remembered a lot.

"When somebody scares you like that, either your mind goes blank or it burns into your memory," Anderson continued.

Previous run-ins with thieves helped these women give a better account of our bad guy. However, research on the accuracy of eyewitness accounts is far less impressive. According to research from the Innocence Project in Seattle, eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions later overturned through DNA testing.

Eastern Washington University Professor or Computer Science, Carol Taylor, said "Even though you think 'Oh, this is so traumatic, I'll never forget,' you've got all of this other angst going on and that puts a filter between your ability to remember."

Along with computer science, Taylor teachers interdisciplinary studies on eyewitnesses and the law.

"I think they give this so much weight, like 'oh wait, there was a visual witness.' It seems to be 'oh, well of course.' They just convict them then. So I'm not sure it's really the eyewitness themselves because they're just going to do the best job they can to be honest. I Think it's the court system that maybe needs to take some other things into account."

And yet, eyewitnesses are still one of the most helpful tools prosecutors have in convicting an eyewitness.

Spokane County's Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor, Jack Driscoll, said "It can be very compelling evidence when someone is saying "I have no doubt that that's the person that did it."

For this test, we made sure to take all the necessary steps to protect everyone's safety including removing any weapons that might have been inside the store as well as called Crime Check.

EYE ON THE CRIME Test 2

For our second test, KHQ aimed to find out: Is there a difference between what a bystander eyewitness remembers, those who see a crime happen to others, and victim eyewitness, someone who's the direct victim of a crime?

At three different angles, cameras rolled on five volunteers at Manito Park. They believed they were there for a story about taste testing.

"There's cookies, cereal and soda," KHQ Reporter Chelsea Kopta pointed out.

There was one big difference from our first test: this group got a small heads up. We told them in advance that something else was going to happen at the park, they just didn't know when.

Our producer, Ann, was our helpless victim while our photographer Nick was our so-called thief. After 15 minutes of testing different brands the group got its real test. While Ann casually strolled by the group, Nick went after Ann's purse. "Give me your purse! Give me your purse! Give it!" he yelled.

For a moment, the participants were frozen in their seats. Then, one volunteer said," Did you guys see that? Are you okay? While another volunteer wanted to know, "Should we call 911?

In the next minute, one of the woman took off after our fake crook and called police. Before long, KHQ reminded her, it was all staged.

Once again, we split up our eyewitness and asked them individually to describe our thief. Here's what they remembered:

"I remember he was wearing jeans and that's about it," Kelsey Wold said.

Participant Melanie Parratt remembered,"He was wearing all black."

Participant Robert Shaw said, "He was wearing jeans, a black shirt and I think he had a hat on. I'm not sure."

"I'm going to say probably in his mid to late 30s," volunteer Rhonda Sypher said. "He had on an Army green-colored cap; he had on a black sweatshirt, blue jeans and a pair of work boots, I think. I didn't get a real good look at his face."

"I think he looked like the Unabomber," participant Naaman Cordova said.

Shaw continued, "I'm actually surprised I remember as little as I do, knowing what was going on."

But that wasn't the end of the test. Several days later we called them all back into the KHQ studios for a photo-lineup like police do. We presented each person with six images with the same features as our so-called thief. Did they pass?

"Possibly, maybe, so far, yeah," Wold said while looking at the lineup. "For some reason that sticks out at me."

"Yes," Shaw said as he picked out Nick from the lineup.

Volunteers Sypher, Parratt and Cordova all follow suit, picking out our fake crook in the lineup. But it was clear, some of the eyewitness were weary about their pick. In a real crime, would that be enough to build a strong case?

Spokane Police Officer Jennifer Deruwe explained, "We've had people swear up and down 'they saw this happen.' And in the end, there's absolutely no physical evidence to substantiate that."

Spokane Police officers know as well as anyone that the mind is not like a tape recorder to be stopped and played back. Everyday, well-intentioned people make mistakes recalling their memories to investigators, while the bad-guys just lie. That's why detectives have to vet every eyewitness and compare their story to hard evidence.

"Then it becomes this one big puzzle," Deruwe continued. "We can pick out the pieces that make sense and at that point we can hand it to the prosecutors office."

Spokane County Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll, agreed. Nowadays, he said, it's unlikely a case would ever rely solely on eyewitness identification. "That happens less and less because we do realize there has been an evolution of how eyewitness testimony is viewed from a number of different studies; That it's not as reliable as it once was thought to be."

While cases rarely hinge on eyewitness testimony alone, Driscoll said eyewitness accounts can still be very helpful to cases. Driscoll described witnesses as just another tool in their arsenal.

RESOURCES:

The role of mistaken eyewitness Identification and DNA Exonerations:

<http://www.innocenceproject.org/understand/Eyewitness-Misidentification.php>

Man Freed After 17 Years for Wrongful Conviction:

<http://www.law.virginia.edu/html/librarysite/garrett_innocent.htm>

Case of Alan Northrop and Larry Davis Based on Mistaken Eyewitness Identification:

<http://www.columbian.com/news/2011/apr/03/innocence-project-northrop-freed-rape-prison/>

Psychology of Eyewitness Accounts:

<http://www.psychology.iastate.edu/~glwells/>

The Innocence Project:

http://www.innocenceproject.org/

 

If you have a question or comment about this story email chelsea.kopta@khq.com.

 

  • Most Popular StoriesMost Popular StoriesMore>>

  • Exposed handlebar grip kills 6-year-old Pullman boy in bicycle crash

    Exposed handlebar grip kills 6-year-old Pullman boy in bicycle crash

    Wednesday, August 15 2018 2:13 AM EDT2018-08-15 06:13:21 GMT

    PULLMAN, Wash. - Six-year-old Denny Curran should be enjoying his last few days of summer before first grade. He should be teasing his brother, splashing in the pool, giving his parents a hard time about vegetables. Instead, Denny is dead, the victim of a horrific, freak bicycle accident that could happen to your child too. "Denny was an extraordinary child," his father Keith Curran told KHQ.

    >>

    PULLMAN, Wash. - Six-year-old Denny Curran should be enjoying his last few days of summer before first grade. He should be teasing his brother, splashing in the pool, giving his parents a hard time about vegetables. Instead, Denny is dead, the victim of a horrific, freak bicycle accident that could happen to your child too. "Denny was an extraordinary child," his father Keith Curran told KHQ.

    >>
  • Police say possible bad batch of drugs hits Spokane

    Police say possible bad batch of drugs hits Spokane

    Thursday, August 16 2018 2:25 AM EDT2018-08-16 06:25:12 GMT

    Spokane, Wash. It's been 24 hours of chaos for Spokane's police and fire departments. They have been running from call to call with reports of people walking in the middle of the street yelling at random people or at objects that don't exist. What Caused it? The Spokane Regional Health District is still struggling to find out "What we are hearing is that these individuals are demonstrating almost what would be what looks like a stimulant psychosis,"  said Doctor Bob...

    >>

    Spokane, Wash. It's been 24 hours of chaos for Spokane's police and fire departments. They have been running from call to call with reports of people walking in the middle of the street yelling at random people or at objects that don't exist. What Caused it? The Spokane Regional Health District is still struggling to find out "What we are hearing is that these individuals are demonstrating almost what would be what looks like a stimulant psychosis,"  said Doctor Bob...

    >>
  • Relative: Family of 7 on vacation died in Oregon collision

    Relative: Family of 7 on vacation died in Oregon collision

    Wednesday, August 15 2018 3:03 PM EDT2018-08-15 19:03:19 GMT

    BURNS, Ore. (AP) - A family member says seven of the eight people killed in a crash on a remote Oregon road were relatives headed to a Las Vegas vacation.    The Oregonian/OregonLive reports Wednesday that 29-year-old Erika Boquet, of Tacoma, Washington, and her three children - 6, 9 and 11 - were killed Monday on Oregon Highway 78.

    >>

    BURNS, Ore. (AP) - A family member says seven of the eight people killed in a crash on a remote Oregon road were relatives headed to a Las Vegas vacation.    The Oregonian/OregonLive reports Wednesday that 29-year-old Erika Boquet, of Tacoma, Washington, and her three children - 6, 9 and 11 - were killed Monday on Oregon Highway 78.

    >>
HD DOPPLER 6i
/