What does the book Eyewitness Testimony say to me

I was reading the book by Dr. Elizabeth F. Loftus, Eyewitness testimony, Harvard University Press, 1979, last month and I found myself reminiscing about my forensic art mentor, Tom Macris. He was the person that told me to read the book back in 1994.  I was fortunate to have him as my mentor and, more importantly, learning his advanced technique of interviewing the eyewitness proved to be very beneficial to my career.

By the time I joined him as his apprentice in 1993 (SJPD) he had made changes to his interview technique so that it would withstand scrutiny.  For instance, he had already eliminated the step of sharing the FBI Identification catalog with the eyewitness as the first order of business.  He told me that he thought showing pictures to stimulate recall was too suggestive and he decided to move the images into the recognition arena and offer them as a way to refine the sketch later.  After this initial interview he would ask them to look at his sketch.  It was drawn with only the left side lightly sketched.  He would then ask the witness to confirm each feature and he’d complete the other side with the added comments.  

Finally, he would introduce them to a binder full of colored mugshots (there were at least three, each 2 - 3 inches thick).  These mugshots were small 2” x 3” photos of subjects placed in plastic photo sleeves in no particular order.  He would ask the witness to look through the binder and find 2 or 3 photos of subjects that looked similar to their suspect.  They usually found 3 - 4 pictures and presented them to Tom. He would take the photos and analyze them briefly for their likeness to the sketch and then refine certain features that the witness may have struggled with.  This process of comparing the mugshot photo to the sketch was valuable in that we could make overall adjustments to the sketch and not use the images to contaminate their memories.  This is the technique that I learned when I started as a police artist. This was my foundation along with the books by Loftus, and Fisher and Geiselman (Cognitive Interview Techniques).

I have read all of these books more than a few times over the last 15 years and I’ve always read them as if they were speaking to me as a forensic artist.  With every experiment that Dr. Loftus revealed, I looked at my own experience as a police artist and figured how I might apply her findings.  I have since added the research by Dr. Gary L. Wells in my quest to adhere to the best practices for a forensic artist.

I’d like to direct you to the book by Dr. Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony, and more specifically chapter 9, Common Beliefs about Eyewitness Accounts.  I’d like to take you through my interpretation of her findings and give you my perspective as a forensic artist.  In this chapter she talks about Cross-Racial Identification, Stress, Violence of the Event, Weapon focus, Question wording and New Information.  In this chapter she looks at a case where she was brought in by the defense to discuss her research on eyewitness accuracy.  Turns out the judge decided that there was nothing she could tell the jury that they already didn’t already know.  This prompted her and her colleague Susan Porietas to conduct a study at the University of Washington.  She collected the responses of over 500 students during the years of 1977 and 1978 and asked them about their beliefs in these areas. She was comparing what the students knew about the effects of eyewitness testimony to the research by psychologists working in the field.  The results in her survey are rather interesting and challenged my experience as a forensic artist.  Let’s take a look at each section.

Cross-Racial Identification
I can say without a doubt that the majority of the sketch interviews I have conducted with eyewitnesses were often describing a suspect that was NOT of their race.  As a forensic artist I was aware of the Cross-Racial Identification (CRI) issue but I moved forward because of my qualifying question, “if you saw the suspect again, would you recognize him?”  If they said “yes”, then I was confident that I could sketch the suspect’s face.  Dr. Wells also states that the process of recognition is quick and without hesitation when looking at photo lineups. I have taken that concept into the forensic art world and so when I ask my eyewitness if they can recognize the suspect if they saw him again, I believe they are accessing the image of the suspect in their mind and when they see it-- they say "yes," if they don't see it clearly they offer another answer. 

My experience has been that most eyewitnesses only remember a few distinct features about the suspect and I focus on these features by having them elaborate about their perceptions.  When the eyewitness views my sketch for the first time I ask them NOT to tell me whether it looks like the suspect or not.  I just ask them to view the sketch to see our progress.  I begin to ask them about the features. When I ask them about the hair, they are comparing the sketch to their memory to decide whether this reminds them of the suspect. This collaboration is very complex and involves a lot of intuitive insight on the part of the forensic artist.  When you are in the throws of the interview you know whether you should make changes to the look of the sketch or not.  My experience with eyewitnesses describing suspects that are not the same race has been that sometimes the articulation of some features is not offered with much confidence.  You hear a lot of words like, “normal” or “I don’t know” when you ask about the features.  This doesn’t mean that they couldn’t recognize the suspect, to me it means that they don’t feel confident articulating the features in great detail or offer much distinction.  It is my job to draw the racial archetype and then make the adjustments based on the information I get from the eyewitness: age range, body type, etc.  Once I get the sketch drawn to this preliminary stage we can move on to the comparative phase of my interview session: this is where the eyewitness compares their recollection of the suspect to the sketch and then utilizes their recognition skills to accept or adjust the features of the sketch.  It’s a dynamic process that requires the eyewitness to be focused ,and for me, to be mindful of the information I am gathering from the interview.  I agree with most of the findings in her research, but I also know that the sketch CAN be created and can result in a likeness to the suspect.

My experience with eyewitnesses has been that they are amazing at recalling events.  I believe that over 75% of my interviews (over 3,000 interviews since 1995) have involved some violent event that would have affected the average person.  And yet, everyone of these eyewitnesses told me that if they saw him (the suspect) again that they would recognize him.  Dr. Loftus tells us bout the Yerkes-Dodson Law that says extreme stress and arousal interfere with a person’s ability to process information.  Once again I’m amazed that we as forensic artists have experienced this finding in a much different way.  

In her book she talks about the correct answer to this finding as: “When a person experiencing extreme stress as the victim…they will have reduced ability to perceive and recall the details of the event.”  67% of her respondents believed this to be true.  As a forensic artist I have accepted the fact that I will be interviewing an eyewitness that has experienced something stressful.  I make it a point to create a calm and relaxed environment and build rapport to bring about some trust between me and the eyewitness.  Building rapport is a key strategy in the Cognitive Interview technique (Fisher and Geiselman).  Have these steps I’ve taken allowed the eyewitness to increase their ability to remember more? I believe that being mindful of the prior “stress” experience is important to understanding how the eyewitness may articulate certain features.  I believe that my interview technique allows for the eyewitness to be, confident in recalling features and allows for disassociation from the stress of the event by directing them to focus on the features of the suspect. The rapport starts at the beginning of my meeting with them. I explain the sketch interview process and give them confidence in knowing that they only need to access their memory and only offer what they remember. I let them know that research tells us that our memory is very fragile and they we don't recall everything with great detail.  I encourage them to lower their sites to a "likeness" of the suspect.  Being exact is not an option and the sketch is NOT a portrait. We only need to be in the ball park to be successful in our quest for the sketch. By the time we start they are very relaxed and ready to proceed. I ask them for three long breaths with their eyes closed and we begin. Many of my eyewitnesses have left my office more at ease and with a sense of accomplishment. The stress has left the building!

Violence of the event
Dr. Loftus talks about how a study conducted by Clifford and Scott (1978) found that people find it harder to recall events from a violent one than from a non violent one.  As I mentioned earlier, my experience as a forensic artist has been that a majority of my cases involved interviewing someone who had experienced a violent event.  The violent event was often part of the crime and my eyewitness was asked to help me create the sketch. I understood that they had experienced something violent, but I also knew that it was important for us to work together to get the sketch out to the public.  Interestingly the results from the survey agree with my experience.  The survey showed that more than 60% of the respondents believed that, “Both the man and the woman will remember the details of the violent crime better than the details of the nonviolent crime.”  I often received less information about the face of the suspect when the witness observed some crime that had a small degree of violence.  For example, an indecent exposure case where the victim or witness saw the suspect and then realized they were exposing themselves brought some less than articulate details about the facial features of the suspect.  They weren’t paying close attention and weren’t focused on the suspect’s face.  Only until they realized that this was something vulgar did they react and then focus on the suspect’s face.  By then the suspect realized he’d been found out and left the scene.  Contrast that with a robbery where the witness views the clerk being attacked by the robber and then leaves the scene.  The witness in this case would be focused on the act and when possible, the face of the suspect (at a safe distance).  I believe the violence in the act creates focused attention by the witness, and when they determine that they are at a safe distance (this happens in seconds) they begin to process the scene. How else can I explain the thousands of sketches I’ve created of suspects faces where eyewitnesses have experienced the violent event?

Weapon Focus
Once again I agree with the results of the study and understand why people might believe that the victim of this robbery would remember both the weapon and the face of the suspect.  I have interviewed many bank tellers, as victims of robberies, over the years and they have told me that they saw the gun but they didn’t want to look at it.  They focused on the face of the suspect and tried to follow their directions in handing over the money.  Many of these bank robberies involved very little violence.  Many times the suspect walked in, handed over a note and showed their weapon and waited for the money.  Dr. Loftus writes that they believe the victim would focus more “on the gun which would interfere with the ability to remember the robber’s face.”  This may be a perception that has been accepted in surveys but my experience in interviewing hundreds of these eyewitnesses is that they are able to give me enough information to create the sketch of the suspect.  The only thing I do find interesting in these types of cases, is that men tend to give more details about the weapon than women.  I often ask about the weapon used in the crime to give me some idea of the attention to detail the eyewitness has. My theory is that men are sizing up the threat of the weapon and looking for a way to defend themselves whereas women are focused on the person and strategizing on how they might communicate with the suspect.

Question wording
This survey question speaks to me as a forensic artist loud and clear.  The results of the survey (90% of the respondents felt that using the word “the” or “a” would make a difference) make an impressive showing of how people understand the “leading question” and how it can influence the eyewitness.  I have been mindful of this part of my interview technique for years and I have advised many of my forensic art students  this simple concept:  don’t introduce anything new into the recalled memories of your eyewitnesses.  You risk the new information of becoming their own later in the investigation.  

When I interview an eyewitness about the face of the suspect, I understand that memory is malleable and I can influence their recollection of details by the manner in which I ask the question and how I accept their answers.  For example, when I ask my eyewitness, “tell me about his hair?” and they tell me, “I don’t know I think it was black maybe brown—it was short.”  I don’t ask them, “was it wavy, buzz cut, or spiky?”  If I continue with this type of questioning I may create a routine where the eyewitness will offer up their memory about the feature and then expect me to refine their information with a multiple choice question — for me this is unacceptable!  The one constant I have taken from all of the research from Dr. Loftus and Dr. Wells is that memory is not as reliable as we think and sometimes we have to work with very little.  That’s OK, the sketch is not a portrait and so the detail does not have to be photographic. If the eyewitness' memory is lacking in great detail and precision then the sketch should reflect the same.

I have to be confident in understanding this principle and work around my desire to refine the sketch to portrait quality.  The reason I’m confident in accepting less information is because when I am asking the eyewitness these questions I am asking them in the first phase of interview session - The Recall Phase.  In this phase I make sure that the eyewitness is relaxed and highly focused on the task at hand: describing the suspect’s face.  I asked them to close their eyes and give me deep breaths to show me they are relaxed. I try and bring them to a place where they can find the image of the suspect in their mind.  We dream with images in our subconsciousness all of the time, so why not give the witness an opportunity to utilize this familiar function.  As I ask about each feature I know they are accessing their memory about the suspect and bringing up the image from that event.  I’m counting on them to keep the image in clear focus as we go about talking about each feature.  If I hear them respond about a feature with less than specific detail I don’t get concerned I just accept the fact that that feature may be unremarkable.  

Interestingly, in her book, Dr. Loftus asks her respondents the question: “(1) Did you see a broken headlight? or (2) Did you see the broken headlight? Would it make a difference…?”  I would ask, what did you see? Or was there any damage to vehicle?  Directing the eyewitness to the headlight might cause them to forget the scratches on the door or the missing hubcap.  I like the open narrative format of questioning where the eyewitness tells me what they know and I listen intently to formulate my next question.  I don’t want to cause the eyewitness any concern about their information nor do I want to give them any clue about how satisfied or unsatisfied I am with their information.  Any information is great and giving them praise for what they’ve done so far is the best thing I can do to keep them focused.

New Information
Dr. Loftus has conducted a lot of experiments where she has added new information to a scene and then later asked eyewitnesses questions about the same scene to see if they would incorporate the new information as there own.  The results have revealed the fragility of our own memories and should make us all more diligent in how we conduct ourselves with eyewitnesses.  As a forensic artist I need to be mindful of what I ask my eyewitness and what I tell them about the case (if anything).  As a professional forensic artist I need to adhere to the task at hand and create a sketch that resembles the suspect’s face with a likeness that is acceptable to the eyewitness.

Final thoughts
When I read chapter 9 and go over the results of the survey I can’t help but ask the question, what does the average forensic artist know about these findings?  They seem to be logical for the college student respondent and yet as I have stated here my experiences have been contrary to some of these findings.  From cross-racial identification to weapon focus each of these phenomena fail to deter me from conducting the sketch interview when the eyewitness can recognize the suspect if they saw them again. 

I believe experienced forensic artists need to join with respected psychologists and study the best practices for forensic artists and answer the question, why do the results of the sketch interviews defy some of the findings of these surveys?