Criminal Justice Students Learn You Can't Rely on the Eye

With a marker in his right hand, Radford University Professor Tod Burke pointed to his class and asserted, "Just so you know, right now we are looking for a female between 5 feet and 6 feet 2, and 110 to 170 pounds. This is getting ugly fast."

His 39 students erupted with laughter, realizing their eyewitness identification skills, just as Burke had been telling them all semester, really stink.

On this late February morning, Burke had sent half of his criminal investigative theory class into the hallway. The rest had stayed to watch a movie scene from "Fort Apache, The Bronx." Those who stayed were instructed, "Just watch, and don't talk to each other."


Eyewitness descriptions can vary from person to person, Professor Tod Burke's class recently discovered. During an exercise, students described the same female movie character in much different ways.

The short scene showed a tall, slender blonde woman—or was she brunette?— luring a man who had been changing a tire into an abandoned building, where she attacked him with a razor blade she had hidden in her mouth.

When the movie clip ended, Burke called in the students from the hallway to interview their classmates as if those classmates had witnessed the crime they had just watched on film.

"We've spent a lot of time in class going over what you need to do to get a good description," Burke explained as the students paired up for the interviews. "They came up with the list. Let's now see how they implement the theory and see how it works in real life."

Each interviewer had a list of questions about the suspect, victim, surroundings and events at the crime scene. Burke walked around the class, observing the interviews. A couple of times, he reminded his students not to ask leading questions.

Katlin Bracy, a senior criminal justice major from Stephens City, said that was the most difficult part of the process.

"It was pretty difficult not to ask a leading question," Bracy said. "It was difficult to not try to get them to answer the way you want them to answer. The exercise definitely taught me how easy it is to ask a leading question. You have to be really careful.”

One purpose of the exercise, Burke said, was to teach the students to ask the proper questions and to impress on them how unreliable eyewitness identification can be.

"This is an ideal situation," Burke said. "They didn't have a gun pointed to their heads. They were relaxed when watching the scene. This shows that eyewitness identification, even under the best circumstances, is terrible."

After 20 minutes of interviews, the professor asked the students, both interviewers and witnesses, to describe the suspect and the victim.

"If we're doing a description of the person, we do it from head to toe," Burke explained. "We start off asking if the person was wearing a hat. If so, what color hat? Type and make of the hat. Then we work our way down."

Burke, after asking for details about sex, race, height, weight, hair, eyes, ears, jewelry, fingernail color, clothing and more, wrote on the whiteboard each detail given by the students.

The suspect was quickly identified by all as female—"I wasn't sure they'd get that," Burke joked after class—but that's where the consensus ended.

Most said the female suspect was tall, but some said short. One student said the suspect was "bigger than most girls," drawing snickers from classmates.

Descriptions varied, including the race of the suspect, as Burke had predicted. Some said white, some said mixed, others said African-American. Students challenged each other’s conclusions: "What video were you watching?" one blurted out.

After seeing the film clip a second time, senior Kelly Krebs of Fairfax said, "I wasn't as accurate as I thought I was, but then I wasn't as inaccurate as some of the other things that were thrown out there."

The confusion is all part of Burke's lesson plan. He has been conducting this classroom exercise for years to teach future police officers the difficulty of identifying people and happenings, even under ideal conditions, and to rely on more than eyewitness identification.

"Those who are going into law enforcement need to be observant on the street," Burke said. “They never know when something is going to go down."

He gave an example of a police officer being called to the site of an armed robbery. "You're so focused on getting there, maybe the bad guys are going right by you," he said. "If you're not paying attention, you could miss valuable pieces of information, and it could possibly affect the case."

"I hope this will make them more aware of what's going on in their surroundings as a citizen, as a future police officer or whatever they're going to do," the professor said. Or else, he said, "things will get ugly."

Mar 13, 2012
Chad Osborne