Seen one black suspect, seen 'em all?

Posted: July 14, 2011

Kenny Woods experienced firsthand one of the primary reasons for wrongful arrests: eyewitness misidentification. He has a simple theory how cops could twice wrongly identify him as a killer from photos and a cop's split-second glance at the real culprit.

"I guess they think all black people look alike," Woods said.

Experts say that's sort of true, but the phenomenon is not rooted in racism.

"Social science of the past 30 years tells us that cross-racial identifications can be less accurate than identifications within the same racial group," said Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

Some experts assert that whites get it wrong more than other racial groups, because Caucasian attributes - eye color, hair color, nose shape - vary more than in other races, suggesting that racial groups with more uniform characteristics have a more discerning eye. Exposure also impacts accuracy: Those surrounded primarily by one race have more trouble with cross-racial identification.

"When you add to the mix stress, the presence of a weapon and the quickness of an incident, all of those can affect a witness identification," Bluestine said.

This phenomenon can be deeply damaging, considering how powerful and persuasive witness identification can be to a jury, experts say.

Witness misidentifications contributed to three-quarters of convictions overturned by DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project.

At the time each was arrested, Woods and Donnie Sayers, the man who confessed to killing Daniel Giletta in a car wreck last fall, did share some distinctive attributes, including a thin build, a mustache, a jawline-hugging beard and closely cropped hair. Woods, however has noticeably wider eyes.

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