Case Study of Wrongful or Unsafe Conviction Which Eyewitness Testimony Played a Significant Role: John Jerome White
September 21st 1979, while already under investigation by an agent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), John Jerome White was arrested for the rape, assault, burglary and robbery of a 74 year old woman who had been found asleep on her couch by the perpetrator during the break in. The incident occurred six weeks prior to White’s arrest on 11th August 1979, and even though White maintained his innocence, he was convicted of the charges and sentenced to life in prison for the rape plus 40 years for the other charges on 30th May,
The evidence against White from the original crime scene included pubic hairs from a sheet that had been on the couch during the rape, and a piece of skin near the couch thought to be from someone’s hand or foot. A composite sketch was developed using the victim’s description, and a GBI agent that was investigating White on another charge considered the sketch similar enough that White was arrested. The GBI agent later testified that when White was arrested he had a cut on his hand – which could be related to the piece of skin found at the scene. Out of a photo line up, the victim was “almost positive” her attacker was White and she picked him out, then consequently picked him out of a live line up later. All this evidence, along with a microscopic analyst testifying that the pubic hairs were considered “similar enough to say they have the same origin” saw White convicted.
White was released on parole as a labeled sex offender in 1990, a stigma that may have contributed to the drug possession and robbery convictions that saw him back in prison in 1997 to finish his life sentence. It was through the Georgia Innocence Project that saw a law student organize a DNA test of the preserved public hair from the original crime scene that proved another man had committed the crime of which White had been convicted, and White walked free on the 10th December, 2007. Prosecutors then charged James Parham with the rape based upon the DNA evidence, who subsequently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison (Innocence Project Website on John Jerome White).
Having the advantage of hindsight allows an extremely critical retro-perspective on the set of events and multiple factors that let up the arrest and conviction of John Jerome White. In order to examine these factors in closer detail, I have split them into two main categories: estimator variables and system variables.
Wells, Memon & Penrod (2006) describe estimator variables as variables that affect witness accuracy that are not under the control of the justice system. Eysenck (2009) and Wells et. al (2006) both suggest that issues such as the cross-race effect (or in-group expertise, where people are more accurate in recognizing same-race faces), the weapon-focus effect (where individuals are likely to pay more attention to an attackers weapon to the determent of recalling other potentially relevant information), and stress (where research has found that high levels of stress or anxiety reduces an eyewitnesses ability to recall information and accuracy in identifications). Eysenck (2009) also suggests that eyewitnesses with face-blindness (Prosopagnosia) would be terrible as eyewitnesses, and that unconscious transference is a potentially dangerous variable, where an eyewitness misidentifies a familiar yet innocent face as responsible for a crime. Wells et. al (2006) explores further to include several more estimator variables, including exposure duration (increased exposure to a suspect positively correlates with correct identifications), disguise (eyewitnesses are much less accurate with identifying a suspect when they change their appearance), retention interval (as memory declines over time, any delays in identification can reduce accuracy) and witness intoxication (intoxicated eyewitnesses at the time of the crime lead to fewer correct identifications).
So, what estimator variables were present during the John Jerome White investigation and identification? First of all, perhaps due to ensuring the privacy of the at-the-time 74 year old victim, I have not been able to ascertain the race of the victim; therefore I am unable to include cross-race identification as an estimator variable for sure. In saying this however, if she was an elderly white American, then own-race-bias could well have occurred when selecting her attacker from the photo line up. It is also fair to say that the victim was under a tremendous amount of stress during her ordeal, marking this item a definite estimator variable. It would seem from several recounts of the crime that the intruder did not attempt to mask his identity, however the victim did admit that the lighting in her apartment was poor and she was not wearing her prescription glasses (Innocence Project Website on John Jerome White) – thus allowing the estimator variable of disguise to become included as issue in the case. When the victim did pick White out of a photo line up, she suggested she was “almost positive” that he was the attacker, which to me insinuates that she was not convinced that he was the attacker either.
System variables are issues that are within the control of the justice system after a crime has been committed, which can be broken down into two categories: utilizing an eyewitnesses’ recall memory through interviewing, and calling upon an eyewitnesses’ recognition memory through the identification of subjects (Wells et. al 2006 and Eysenck, 2009). Wells et. al (2006) and Eysenck (2009) suggest that some of the major dangers with interviewing an eyewitness include closed-ended questions (such as “what colour was the car” versus “what can you tell me about the car”), interrupting the eyewitness when they were in the middle of saying something, and following a pre-determined order of questions – no matter the responses. Wells et. al (2006) goes on to also illustrate occasions where police interviewers either consciously or subconsciously led the witness to make inaccurate memories through leading questions; something Binet (1900) was able to demonstrate with his suggestibility experiments that revealed that incorrect information could be planted successfully. Out of these issues it is challenging to identify any one point that was present during the John Jerome White investigation, other than to say that the investigation took place in 1979 – 1980, and the cognitive interview (a researched interview technique that resolves many if not all of the interview issues listed above) was not developed until the early 1980’s (Wells et. al, 2006). It would therefore be reasonable to infer that the victim could have been exposed to leading questions and other poor interview techniques at the time. Loftus (1992) argues that eyewitnesses are susceptible to accept misleading information presented after an event then regard it as their own memory for that event later. Perhaps this influenced her identification?
This leads us onto the other category of system variables; the identification of suspects. Wells et. al (2006) lists the main areas where the justice system has control over the variables involved with the identification of subjects as composition sketches and line ups. Koverea, Penrod, Pappas & Thill (1997) experiment where 50 composite sketches by former class mates of high school students strongly suggested that composite sketches have a poor likeness of the original face as only 3 of the 167 names offered to match the faces were correct. Although another study has indicated that accuracy towards the original face can increase when multiple eyewitnesses independently produce composites (Bruce, Ness, Hancock, Newman & Rarity, 2002), it does not help those eyewitnesses or victims who find themselves let alone to identify the perpetrator – as was the case with John Jerome White. The victim was clearly alone with the real attacker – James Parham – in what she admitted was poor lighting without her glasses. From this she assisted in creating a “sketchy” composite that studies suggest faces the challenge of being dissimilar with the original face (Wells et. al, 2006). Other issue that arose from White’s composite was the GBI agent thinking the sketch resembled White. There is all possibility that the agent was bias towards White already as he was already investigating him on another matter, and if this is the case, there’s every chance the agent influenced the victim in their line up selection.
Which brings us to discussing the system variables of line ups. There are four main ways that line ups are done; target present and target absent line ups that are either photo line ups or live line ups. One of the clear areas where bias and influencing of the eyewitness can occur is in the instructions leading up to the line up, with the most important point being whether the eyewitness is told that the suspect may or may not be in the line up (Wells et. al, 2006). The selection of the other members of the line up is equally important, where the description the eyewitness had previously given of the suspect should be taken into account to ensure the suspect does not stand out obviously in the line up (for example, if the suspect is known to be Asian, it would be wise to have more than one Asian in a line up). In White’s case, there were two line ups; the first was a photo line up where the victim (as mentioned above) was almost certain White was her attacker, then a live line up – where White was the only person in both line ups. This could have increased the risk of unconscious transference, where the victim then chooses White as he now looks familiar (Eysenck, 2009).
There are a number of procedures and safeguards that can be applied to reduce or completely remove some of these variables – more so the system variables than the estimator variables – as these are under more control. With the eyewitness interviewing there has been the development of the cognitive interview which is based upon the encoding specificity principle and caters to the fact that memory is complex and information is access from several angles (Eysenck, 2009). There has also been the development of the PEACE Model of interviewing (Planning and preparation, Engage and explain, Account, clarification and challenge, Closure and Evaluate) of which has become standard procedure in many countries within the police force (Davison, 2012). Improvement in identifying suspects can be achieved through 1-to-1 sequential line ups, and increased number of people in line ups, improvement on correct instructions before line ups, the proper selection of fillers so target doesn’t stand out, double blind line ups where the officers with the eyewitness themselves don’t know who the suspect is, and an improvement on composite software and knowledge that the more eyewitnesses that make sketches improves the likeness to the actual face (Wells et. al, 2006). To reduce estimator variables, the introduction of the expert witness in court explaining the fallibility of memory has shown to increase jury awareness and caution (Eysenck, 2009).
Binet, A. (1900). La suggestibilité [On suggestibility]. Paris: Schleicher.
Bruce, V., Ness, H., Hancock, P. J. B., Newman C. & Rarity, J. (2002). Four heads are better than one: Combining face composites yields improvements in face likeness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87. 894-902.
Davison, J. (2012). Interviewskills: Practical Guide to Investigative Interviewing. Interviewskills Interview Training & Consulting. Auckland NZ.
Eysenck, M. W. (2009). Eyewitness Testimony. Chapter 14 in Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M. W. & Anderson, M. C. (Eds.). Memory, 317-342. New York N.Y.: Psychology Press.
Innocence Project – The Innocence Project – Know the Cases: Browse Profiles: John Jerome White. Retrieved March 29, from http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/John_Jerome_White.php
Koverea, M. B., Penrod, S. D., Pappas, C. & Thill, D. L. (1997). Identification of computer-generated facial composites. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82. 235-246.
Loftus, E. F. (1992). When A Lie Becomes Memory’s Truth: Memory Distortion After Exposure to Misinformation. Current Directions in Psychological Science 1. 121-123.
Wells, G. L., Memon, A. & Penrod, S. D. (2006). Eyewitness evidence: Improving its probative value. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 7(2), 45-75.