Friday, April 28, 2006

Eyewitness Testimony

If you haven't checked out Malcolm Gladwell's blog, now is a good time to do it. Commenting on the Duke lacrosse investigation, he notes that people just aren't very good at picking perpetrators out of a line-up. Studies show that it's even harder to correctly identify someone of a different race. From his blog entry:

This has been a huge issue for years in white identifications of black suspects. I would venture to guess that there are thousands of African Americans in prison right now for crimes they didn’t commit, largely because whites have far too much faith in their ability to tell one black face from another. Now, in the Duke case, we have a black identification of white suspects. The shoe is on the other foot. It will be interesting to see whether the legal system is any more willing to acknowledge the real limitations of eye-witness identifications when it is suspects from the racial majority who are on the receiving end of the bias, not the other way around.

I've been wondering about facial recognition and race ever since I was one of a couple white teachers in an all-black school in Alabama about ten years ago. Students were constantly getting me confused with another white teacher. I'm blond-haired and German-looking, and this other guy has thick, black Italian hair. Still, students - especially those who didn't see us every day - had a hard time telling us apart.

Gladwell says that it will be interesting to see "whether the legal system is any more willing to acknowledge" these limitations when whites are the ones being picked out of the line-up. I think most of us can predict the outcome of this one, and it's more depressing than interesting. These lacrosse players will have good lawyers who will artfully explain to the judge or jury the shortcomings of cross-race identification. It's not depressing that these shortcomings are going to be exposed, but that that they haven't been discussed already.

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