As people are trying to catch glimpses of the DC area sniper, police are concerned about the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Author Elizabeth Loftus says that memory is not “preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks and expands again.”
By providing the public with details from eyewitness accounts, like the white van, police hope to trigger the memories of people who were near the shooting sites. But Loftus says such information can “contaminate” good eyewitness accounts.
Maryland police Chief Charles Moose says, “No one knows how to be a witness. We have to train people to be a witness.” So how can we do it? Specialists in eyewitness testimony say there are things people can do to make sure their eyewitness testimony will be reliable.
First, when you see something suspicious or important, write it down as soon as possible. Psychologist Gary Wells, who has studied eyewitness testimony for 25 years, suggests carrying a notepad and pen or a voice recorder at all times. Even scratching a license plate number in the dirt with a stick can work. The sooner memories are recorded, the less chance they have of becoming warped by hearing the accounts of others. He says, “What’s important is to externalize your memory as soon as possible because memories fade and change very quickly.”
Second, try not to focus on the victim. The perpetrator counts on this in order to get away unseen. “The weapon used in these shootings appears to be some distance away,” says Wells. “So the idea is to do what does not come naturally and to look in other directions.”Loftus points out that this can be difficult for people witnessing stressful events like a shooting or traffic accident.
Third, don?t look for expected details. In this case, it means don?t look for a white van leaving the scene of a shooting. Instead, try to objectively take in as many details as possible, so you?ll spot something new. “Don’t wheel around and look for a white van,” says Wells. “First, because we don’t know yet that the white van idea is right. Secondly, because there are a lot of white vans around and the sniper may be less likely to use a white van now.”
If one eyewitness thinks he sees a certain make of car, others can remember seeing it as well, causing false testimony to snowball. Gregg McCrary, a former FBI profiler, says that in a serial murder case he was working on, eyewitnesses reported seeing two men in a beige Camaro. When the case was resolved, investigators found the suspects were actually a man and a woman traveling in a gold Nissan.
There are different theories on the best way to remember a suspect’s face. Garrett Berman found that people are better at recalling faces when instructed to look at the whole face and noting how facial features relate to each other. People who are told to pay attention to individual facial features were less successful at identifying the faces later. Wells suggests making a mental note about other people you know that the suspect resembles.
“We have to bear in mind that memory is a fragile thing,” says Loftus. “You can’t overly embrace every account just because it’s confidently expressed.”
Sometimes the less obvious way to do things turns out to be the best way. For instance, Jose Arguilles says we?re living our lives according to the wrong kind of calendar, and if we change the way we measure time, our lives will change for the better. To learn how he does it, read ?Time & Technosphere,? click here.
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