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SALT LAKE CITY -- Can you remember the color of shirt you wore yesterday, or the eye color of your best friend? If under pressure to remember details that could help police solve a crime, could you do it?
It is a familiar scene in movies where the police ask a victim to pick out a suspect in a line-up scenario. However, the suspect is mixed up with decoy suspects. But how reliable is eyewitness testimony?
Each year, 75,000 witnesses identify criminal suspects. Yet, as the New Jersey Supreme Court has acknowledged in a recent landmark case, there is "a troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications."
"Memory is incredibly complex," said neuropsychologist Dr. Kevin Duff. "It seems to be an interchange of chemical messages, physical activity and kind of the mind creating and storing information in various parts throughout the brain."
Dr. Duff said memories are far from complete, accurate accounts of real life events. Everything from past personal experiences, ethnic background and mood can shape a memory, which is why people can be swayed by others' accounts of what happened.
Over 230 people, serving an average of 12 years in prison, have been exonerated through DNA testing in the U.S.; 75% of those wrongful convictions involved eyewitness misidentification. -The Innocent Project
"Definitely, we're open to suggestion when it comes to memory," Dr. Duff described. "In fact, sometimes subtle pieces of information can help us mis-remember things. There's a lot of research that shows that we tend to recognize people that are from our same racial group or ethnic class, better than we do somebody from a different racial group or ethnic class."
"If I'm trying to identify somebody from a different racial or ethnic group than me, I may have more difficulty identifying them," Dr. Duff added.
There are many things that can impact what people can remember about a specific event, such as happiness and being sad or scared, which means emotions can be the difference between being a good eyewitness or a poor one.
Oftentimes people don't know they have been involved in a crime until maybe after it is over or well into it, as many people don't place much value in the things that are around them, which is another cause for faulty memory recall.
It is often easy to miss something big when a person is looking for something else. But for law enforcement, being aware of everything around them is part of their job, and they say it's critical for everybody to do the same.
In 2003, Harry Miller was convicted of a convenience store robbery, even though he wasn't in Utah the day the Salt Lake City store was robbed. He was recovering from a debilitating stroke in Louisiana the day of the robbery. However, eyewitness testimony placed Miller at the scene, which meant Miller had to spend the next three years in prison for a crime he didn't do.
Miller was finally released last month after witness testimony was proven false.
A study released in August by the American Judicature Society analyzed 850 photographic lineups. The study revealed that mistakes in identification are often related to how the photos of a lineup are presented. If a person uninvolved in the case presents the photos one-by-one, rather than all at once, fewer mistakes are made.
Another critical factor is whether the authority presenting the photos knows who the suspect is. And while eyewitness testimony has its flaws, a reliable eyewitness can make a case.
"Eyewitnesses are critical in the building of a good investigation and prosecution," said FBI agent David Johnson. "It's very important, and FBI agents are taught this all the time, to be aware of your surroundings. Be aware of what's going on around you at all times."
Paying attention to the people and things around you can not only allow you to be a better witness, it could prevent you from being a victim of a crime.
In 38% of the misidentification cases, multiple eyewitnesses misidentified the same innocent person. -The Innocent Project
"The kidnapping case of Elizabeth Smart hinged on recalling a memory," Johnson said. "Elizabeth's little sister was able to describe Brian David Mitchell to police, which led to his arrest.
In an effort to test KSL viewers on how observant they are, our scene was changed while video was played. Viewers were encouraged to join in on Facebook for the awareness test, with a live panel in studio participating as well.
Viewers were asked to recall the memory of an unidentified man walking up to the side of a bench looking at his phone. The man casually picks up a woman's purse and walks away. They were then asked to identify characteristics such as the color of the man's shirt and his eye color.