Fear : Memory :: Oil : Water

In 1988 Jimmy Lee Page was identified as an attacker by a seven year-old boy recovering from 20 stab wounds on a hospital bed. Joe Howard, the young victim, “reacted dramatically” when he saw a photo of Mr. Page in a lineup from his hospital bed, with flowing tears and noticeable fear. Police placed great weight on the boy’s immediate, visceral reaction to the image, and pursued criminal charges against Page.

But in the following months, now out of the hospital, young Joe Howard identified two other men as his attacker. Police insist that his first, emotionally charged response is the right one to follow. But leading eyewitness researcher Gary Wells chimed in with a different take:

Joe’s emotional reaction was not “an indication of being right, it’s an indication of believing you are right,” said Gary Wells, an Iowa State University psychology professor who has studied the reliability of eyewitness identification for 30 years.

As we know from the research of Dr. Wells and others, the correlation between a witness’s confidence and his accuracy is weak at best, and often entirely misleading.

Today, it’s known that fear plays a key role in impeding the ability to form and process memories, Wells said.

“The natural tendency for all humans is fight or flight from fear. All of one’s mental resources get devoted to survival, and forming a detailed memory of things around you does not help you survive,” Wells said.

In other words, the natural fear response is not to “remember that face”; it is to survive. And the latter often stands in the way of the former.

And not only was the first ID contradicted by two subsequent IDs of other men — it was revealed that the initial photo ID procedure included fourteen suspects, all of whom lived near the crime scene. The experts find this practice particular troubling, as we talked about recently in the context of the Duke rape case:

“They can’t go wrong, can they? If the witness picks anybody, then they’ve got their man,” Malpass said.

By contrast, a scientifically valid lineup would have packaged each suspect with photos of five “fillers,” men who could not have committed the crime, Malpass and Wells said.

“The beauty of that is, if you’ve got a witness who really doesn’t have a reasonable memory — if they are just going to pick somebody — five out of six times, they’ll pick the filler, and you know immediately that they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Wells said.

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