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Home > Research Articles > Shock Impacts Sniper Witness Accounts

Associated Press

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Shock Impacts Sniper Witness Accounts

Associated Press - October 17, 2002

Witness accounts are distorted by fear and by the tendency of bystanders to focus immediately on the victim, allowing the shooter crucial seconds to disappear.

``The normal reaction to fear is not one of becoming a really good, attentive eyewitness,'' said Gary Wells, an Iowa State university psychologist who has studied witness testimony for 25 years. ``The normal reaction is to flee, to help the victim, to protect yourself.''

The ninth killing, of Linda Franklin, outside a Falls Church, Va., Home Depot store on Monday night, was the first witnessed by a number of bystanders - leading authorities to believe that important new clues about the killer were finally at hand.

``There was some additional information that we were able to get from (Monday) night's case, and I am confident that that information is going to lead us to an arrest in the case,'' Police Chief Tom Manger of Fairfax County, Va., said the day after the shooting.

But by Wednesday such confidence proved premature and after a number of witness interviews police began backpedalling.

``Unfortunately, distance and darkness, and perhaps adrenaline have made them unable to give a clear composite that we can disseminate,'' said Police Capt. Nancy Demme of Montgomery County, Md., where five of the sniper's victims were shot.

The gunman was variously described as dark-skinned, olive-skinned, Middle Eastern and Hispanic. ``The only common denominator thus far is male,'' Demme said.

One witness insisted that he saw the killer toting an AK-74 assault rifle, Demme said, but given the other inconsistencies, police are treating that account gingerly as well.

``We have to keep in mind that weapons are interchangeable, like vehicles,'' she said. ``That may be what he thinks he saw.''

There were already discrepancies in accounts of vehicles leaving earlier attacks, leading police to ask the public to watch out for three different vehicles: a white ``box truck'' and later a Chevrolet Astro van or a Ford Econoline van.

Problems with eyewitness testimony are not new. The uncertainties account for increasing pressure in the United States for a moratorium on the death penalty. A recent Associated Press review of 110 convictions overturned because of DNA evidence found that nearly two-thirds were based on erroneous eyewitness testimony.

Wells said that the sniper case is especially hard for witnesses because of the suddenness of the attacks. In most other cases when witness testimony is solicited - such as one involving a convenience store robbery - bystanders and victims are focusing on the perpetrator.

With the sniper ``there's street noise, the attention is directed to the effect of the gun, by the time they realize this person's been shot, they look around and it's too late,'' said Wells.

The chaos of a scene is also a factor, said Ira Robbins, a professor of criminal justice at American University.

``Everybody was running for cover, and witnesses who reportedly saw the shooter get back into a car - what if that was someone else fleeing for safety?'' he asked. ``There are too many other things going on, it ties in with distraction.'' The poor lighting in the parking lot would also have confused witnesses, he said.

The American Bar Association has warned that eyewitness reports can be thrown off by race, stress, lighting, a focus on weapons or other features instead of faces, the length of time a witness sees a suspect, and the length of time between the crime and the identification.

The confused testimony in the sniper case has led police to issue a ``how to witness'' guide: Stare in the direction of the bullet noise, carry around a pen to take notes; if necessary, write down details on your hand.

Police have warned witnesses not to ``contaminate'' their memories by comparing notes with other people or the media, a nod to recent research that the more information people have, the more confident they are of their mistaken testimony.

Test subjects who received positive feedback from police in a 1998 American Psychological Association study - including comments like, ``This will allow us to finally get this guy off the street.'' - became overconfident in their identification of suspects, despite being completely wrong.

Robbins said he puts all his students through a test each year: A secretary delivers a pile of documents to his desk during a lecture; 10 minutes later, he asks the class to describe her. Few get it right.

``People think eyewitness testimony is foolproof, although its pretty clear that's not the case,'' he said. (PROFILE (CO:Home Depot; TS:HD; IG:RTS;) )

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.