OGDEN — Race can play a critical role in how witnesses identify criminal suspects.
Weber State professor Sheree Josephson recently published a study that shows eyewitnesses struggle when trying to identify a suspect of another race, and whites and blacks react differently when trying to identify suspects of their own race from a photo array, or lineup.
“Whites tended to make a quick decision with few comparisons being made to the other photos, while blacks tended to be very cautious, making lots of comparisons,” Josephson said.
“Maybe this is indicative of what has been happening in society. A number of blacks have been wrongly incarcerated for crimes against whites. The black community may realize these issues.”
According to the Innocence Project, an organization that fights to exonerate the innocent through DNA testing and litigation, more than 224 people since 1991 have been exonerated after conviction by genetic testing.
More than 75 percent of those cases involved mistaken eyewitness identification, and of those, nearly half involved a person wrongly identifying a person of another race.
Josephson’s study, conducted in North Carolina with Michael E. Holmes, of Ball State University, studied four groups of 10 people. Ten black subjects and 10 white subjects were shown videos of a simulated crime committed by a person of their same race. Ten white subjects and 10 black subjects were shown videos in which the perpetrators were of a race different from the video viewers.
Twenty-four hours later, the eyewitnesses returned to look at photo arrays that contained the picture of the perpetrator from the video they viewed.
• White eyewitnesses viewing a photo array of six same-race suspects spent an average of 10 seconds looking at photos, then quickly and confidently identified a suspect. (Cluster group 1 in the above graphic)
• African-American eyewitnesses viewing an array of same-race suspects took an average of 50 seconds to carefully consider suspects, then offered a “cautious confirmation,” Josephson said. (Cluster group 3)
• Both groups in which witnesses were viewing a photo array of different-race suspects had mixed results, with subjects spending an average of 25 seconds viewing. (Cluster group 2)
“The study confirmed the high rate at which people make mistakes in identifying suspects in cross-racial eyewitness identification situations,” Josephson said.
“The eye tracking showed differences between how whites and blacks viewed the photo arrays.”
Josephson said her study was small and should not be considered conclusive in terms of identification percentages.
She said the main goal of the study was to determine whether black and white witnesses view photo arrays differently, which she confirmed they do.
“It may be a case where the African-American community has an awareness of the wrongful incarcerations, so they are very cautious making an identification,” Josephson said. “We cannot say that is the reason. It’s just one possibility.”
Josephson said her hope is that law enforcement and the general public will become more aware of different-race recognition deficits when considering suspects.
Such biases have been reported in the news and incorporated into television crime dramas, she said.
Her study was published in the October-December 2011 issue of Visual Communication Quarterly.
Josephson, a former Standard-Examiner reporter and editor, said she became interested in eye-tracking research as it related to newspapers. Later, when she was a University of Utah student, a professor asked her to help another of his former students with a court case.
“His former student was an attorney involved with the murder case of a Woods Cross motel clerk,” Josephson said. “This attorney said the photo array sabotaged his client.”
The client’s photo pictured him wearing a neon yellow shirt and was poorly lighted, the darkness casting facial shadows. The other five men pictured in the photo array were well-lighted and were wearing neutral-hued clothing.
Test groups asked to identify the guilty party picked the shady man in yellow every time.
“I thought it was really interesting,” Josephson said. “That was my first connection to the field.”
Josephson said she plans more studies.
“It’s a huge problem in society — to do photo arrays or live lineups, and whether pictures should be shown one at a time or all at once, and what an officer should say or not say,” Josephson said.
“When you add in things like cross-racial recognition deficits, it can make things even more interesting.”