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Shooting of Seven-Year-Old Girl in Houston Highlights Problems With Eyewitness Identification

by Matt Clarke

The fatal shooting of a 7-year-old black girl who was riding in a car on a Houston highway, along with her mother and three sisters, is a tragedy that starkly illustrates the problems with eyewitness identification — unreliability. 

Jazmine Barnes was struck by one of many bullets fired into the car driven by her mother, LaPorsha Washington, on December 30, 2018. Washington also was wounded by the gunman, who had pulled alongside them and opened fire without warning during the early morning hours. 

Jazmine’s teenage sister described the shooter as a thin white man in his 30s or 40s wearing a black hoodie and driving a red pickup truck. Based upon this detailed description, police released a police artist’s sketch of the suspect that, along with the description of him and his vehicle, was widely reported by the national media for several days. Politicians chimed in, commenting that this must have been a racially motivated hate crime. The media eagerly embraced that angle. 

The problem is they all were wrong. The media were wrong, the politicians were wrong, the police and their artist were wrong — even Jazmine’s sister was wrong as proven by the arrest of a 20-year-old black man for the crime about a week later.  

There may have been a white man in a red pickup truck — video seems to show one — but he was not the shooter. The two young black men, who were involved in the shooting, were in a sedan and thought Washington’s car belonged to someone they had been in a confrontation with earlier at a bar. 

What went wrong? Why was the description so far off? 

“That’s all she could see at the time because the sun hadn’t really even came out yet,” said Washington in a CNN interview. 

But the problem wasn’t lighting. Setting aside the fact that Houston highways are well lit — the teenager gave an accurate and detailed description. It just wasn’t a description of the shooter or his vehicle. 

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez might have hit closer to the truth when he said the white man in the pickup might have been the last thing Jazmine’s family remembered “prior to the mayhem and chaos.” That’s because humans have a well-known reaction to stress in which one’s body prioritizes resources and sharpens its focus, according to Reed College psychology professor Daniel Reisberg. This stress-response-mechanism is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, a chemical sequence that starts with the forebrain (hypothalamus) sending chemical signals to the pituitary gland, which then secretes the stress hormone ACTH, causing the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Cortisol causes extreme tunnel vision and creates a very brief memory snapshot of what happened. 

“When you’re under high stress, not only does it have an impact on how things are recorded in your brain but also how you can report on the memory,” said Reisberg, noting that the stress memory fades rapidly and can be contaminated by talking to police, bystanders, an attorney or friends. 

“People will sort of incorporate things,” said Quinnipiac University assistant professor of psychology Evan Saerys-Foy. “Even with these very vivid events, the inaccuracy keeps going on with time.” 

That’s why Meredith College criminologist Lori Brown said “eyewitness testimony is the least reliable evidence you can have.” Unfortunately, it is very powerful evidence that is commonly used in criminal prosecutions and often the cause of wrongful convictions. The aftermath of Jazmine’s death shows that the criminal justice system needs to re-evaluate its use of uncorroborated eyewitness identifications. 

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Sources: nytimes.com, KUHF-FM

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