Wednesday, December 29, 2010

They all look the same: How eyewitness ID of blacks can cause problems

When Jennifer Thompson-Cannino learned that the man she had accused of raping her had been found innocent through DNA evidence, "my reaction was utter disbelief," she said.

Ms. Thompson-Cannino, who is white, had been a college student in North Carolina when she was attacked in 1984, and her African-American rapist had spent more than 20 minutes with her.

"I studied every single detail on his face," she said. "I was going to make sure he was going to be put in prison." Later, after looking at suspect photos and viewing a lineup, "I was confident I had picked the right guy, and he was going to jail, and if there was a death penalty, I would be there to pull the plug."

Based largely on her emphatic testimony, Ronald Cotton was convicted and spent 11 years in prison, until DNA showed that another convict named Bobby Poole had actually raped her.

As she tried to grapple with this new information, Ms. Thompson-Cannino thought that when police showed her a photo of Mr. Poole, "my mind would immediately say, 'Oh my God, I was wrong.' "

"But Bobby Poole's picture didn't have that impact on me at all. And when he didn't look familiar, I just thought I had failed everyone, and that I was a terrible human being."

But she wasn't a failure. She was just normal. Study after study has shown that all of us have difficulty recognizing individuals from other racial or ethnic groups, and that the phenomenon, known as the cross-race effect, is even worse for people in a majority population group.

White Americans have trouble recognizing black Americans. White French people have trouble recognizing Arab immigrants. Chinese people have trouble recognizing Japanese people.

The story of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, both 48, is remarkable because they have become close friends over the last 15 years. They make public appearances together to talk about the flaws with eyewitness testimony, and last year, they co-wrote a book, "Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption" (St. Martin's Press).

Over that period, Ms. Thompson-Cannino said she has learned how it was possible for her brain to make the mistakes that led her to identify the wrong man as her rapist.

She believes the cross-race effect was one of those mental errors. "Because of my public speaking, I'm now in contact with more races than most white women I know," she said in an interview this month, "but I don't think my ability to discriminate among black faces has gotten any better."

Mr. Cotton also thinks the cross-race effect helped put him behind bars. To him, he and Mr. Poole don't look anything alike. "But about 90 percent of white people think all black people look alike. It's sad but it's true," he said in an interview.

The story of these two unlikely friends has become fairly well known, but what people may not realize is how common these kinds of mistakes are. Of the first 239 people exonerated of their crimes through DNA evidence, 179 -- about three-quarters -- had been convicted based on inaccurate eyewitness identification, according to the Innocence Project in New York City.

And of those cases, about four out of 10 involved cross-race misidentifications.

The struggle to recognize other-race faces begins within the first year of life as part of the natural developmental process. Olivier Pascalis, an infant researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research, has done studies showing that 3-month old infants can tell different monkey faces apart, but can no longer do so by the age of 9 months.

In another study, he showed that English and Chinese infants were equally good at 3 and 6 months in discriminating between faces of the opposite race, but "Chinese infants at 9 months of age were showing discrimination only for Chinese faces, and vice-versa."

He is not sure exactly why that happens, but it seems clear that we are designed to start focusing in on the most prevalent parts of our environment at a young age. The same thing happens with language, he noted. Infants are born with the ability to hear the sounds of any language around them, but soon begin to home in on their native tongue.

While most experts believe that the cross-race effect is a natural part of human development, that doesn't make it any less of a problem in the criminal justice system in America, says Christian Meissner, a program director in law and social sciences at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.

American courts rely more heavily on eyewitness identifications to convict defendants than in several other nations, he said, and "we also know that whites are overrepresented as victims and witnesses and blacks are overrepresented as defendants" in criminal cases.

In an interview last month in Virginia, Dr. Meissner emphasized that racial prejudice is not the driving force in our struggle to recognize faces outside our own group. Yet the cross-race phenomenon "is often the start of a process that leads to wrongful conviction," he said.

"What happens is, a witness identifies a suspect. The suspect then becomes the culprit. The police stop gathering information on any other possible suspects. "Then, the officer goes to a forensic scientist and says, 'I have a suspect; I know it's my guy, but I need the evidence to go with it.'

"And finally, he has the suspect come in and he interrogates him in ways that too often lead to a false confession."

The chain of events often starts, though, because a white witness makes an honest mistake in identifying a black suspect from a photo array or a physical lineup.

More here

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