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Eyewitness: How Accurate Is Visual Memory?

Lesley Stahl Reports On Flaws In Eyewitness Testimony That Lead To Wrong Convictions

Stahl thought she knew who to pick from the lineup. She was confident it was number five, but she was wrong. The bomber was not one of the six men in the lineup.

"Isn't that bizarre?" Stahl asked. "Look what you just did to me. I'm mortified. I feel like Jennifer."

Wells says in real life, the mistake is often compounded by what happens next. Remember the seemingly innocent information Thompson says she got from police after she picked Ronald Cotton out of the physical lineup?

"That's the same person you picked out in the photo lineup." So, in my mind I thought, 'Bingo. I did it right,'" she told Stahl.

Wells studied what that reinforcement does. After half his subjects did what Stahl did - picking an innocent person from his lineup - he told them nothing, then asked them questions about what they'd seen. Very few felt highly confident about their choice.

"Only about four percent are saying they had a great view, which is good, 'cause we gave them a lousy view," Wells explained. "Only about three percent are saying they could make out details of the face. That also is good because they really couldn't."

But he told a second group of subjects, after they made the same incorrect choices, "Good, you picked the suspect."

"Now what happens is…40, almost 45 percent of witnesses now report that they were positive or nearly positive. Notice that over one fourth of them now say they had a great view and…it is what happened with Jennifer," Wells said.

"What this seems to be saying is that a reinforcement alters memory," Stahl remarked.

"It does," Wells agreed.

He says the solution is to have someone independent administer the lineup, someone who doesn't even know who the suspect is. And certainly not the detective on the case.

Gauldin agrees he shouldn't have been there when Thompson picked out Cotton.

"But nobody did anything wrong. I mean, that was the practice," Stahl remarked.

"Well, no. That was the common practice then," Gauldin explained. "It was the tradition. It was how it was done then. Law enforcement wasn't schooled in memory. We weren't schooled in protecting memory, treating it like a crime scene, where you're very careful, methodical about what you do and how you use it. I mean, we weren't taught that in those days."

But none of these errors explains perhaps the most puzzling part of this story: how it is that Jennifer Thompson could see Bobby Poole in the courtroom and not realize her mistake?

"You're looking into the face of the man who raped you, whose face you had studied so intently…and there's no flicker…nothing between you and Bobby Poole," Stahl said.

"Nothing," Thompson said. "And I've gone back there many times tryin' to think, 'Was there ever a moment? Did I ever look at him and think?' And I didn't."

Elizabeth Loftus is a professor of psychology and law at the University of California Irvine, and an expert in memory. She showed Stahl an experiment she says might help explain Thompson's mistake. She showed Stahl three different people's faces on her computer and asked her to study each one for a few seconds. A few minutes later, she gave Stahl a memory test.

"Which of these two faces do you recognize from the original study phase?" Loftus asked Stahl, showing her a pair of faces side by side - one she had seen before and one a new face.

Stahl correctly picked the person she had originally seen; for the next set of photos, Stahl was shown a slightly altered version of a face that she had originally been shown and a new face. She picked the slightly altered face which was on the left side of the screen. "I said left, but I wasn't 100 percent sure," she admitted.

And then came the tricky part of the experiment.

Stahl was shown the face from the original memory test on the right side of the screen, and the altered version of that face - the one she had just picked in the previous test - on the left. "Well, I'll tell you why I'm stymied," Stahl acknowledged. "Because I just picked this one, on the left, two seconds ago. But now I'm not sure, 'cause those two look very much alike to me. But I'm gonna tell you the left."

But Stahl was wrong. It was the one on the right. And that's the whole point of the study.

Loftus explained how, like the study subjects, Stahl had been duped. "So you saw this face. Then I gave you a test, where I presented you with an altered face…along with another one. So I pretty much induce you to pick a wrong face. Because I don't even have the real guy there. It's an altered version. And later on, when you now have a choice between the altered one and the real one, you stuck with your altered left…choice," she explained.

"This can help us understand why Jennifer can be sitting in a courtroom and be looking at Bobby Poole, the original rapist, and looking at Ronald Cotton, and saying, 'No, it's not Poole. It's Cotton.' Because she has been picking him all along," Loftus said.