When eyewitnesses get it wrong

Many prosecution cases rely heavily on eyewitness testimony, a notoriously unreliable source. Photo c/o Null Value/Flickr

In most cases, the probability that an eyewitness will accurately identify the perpetrator of a serious crime is slim – irrespective of the beholder’s degree of confidence in his choice. But unfortunately, too often eyewitness testimony has been accepted as gospel in criminal court, with devastating consequences for innocent defendants.

In the United States, incorrect eyewitness identification figures in 75 per cent of wrongful convictions later cleared by DNA evidence, according to the New York-based Innocence Project. Furthermore, eyewitness error has undoubtedly resulted in the execution of innocent death row inmates in that country. In Canada, erroneous eyewitness identifications have contributed to many unjust convictions. But few cases of mistaken identity have risen to greater prominence than that of Vancouver native Thomas Sophonow, indicted for the December 1981 strangling of 16-year-old doughnut shop cashier Barbara Stoppel in Winnipeg.

One of the witnesses who identified Sophonow as Stoppel’s killer was Christmas tree salesman John Doerksen, whose business operated across the street from the doughnut shop. Doerksen reported approaching the premises sometime after 8:15 on December 23, 1981, and finding the door locked. He recalled watching the murderer – a tall man in a cowboy hat – leave the restaurant, and walk toward a nearby bridge. This is where his story becomes convoluted.

According to Doerksen, he pursued the murderer toward the bridge, stopped at a hardware store to pick up a baseball bat, then quickened his pace to catch up. Doerksen claimed he tussled with the killer on the bridge, but the evildoer got away after threatening Doerksen with a knife. Upon his return to the scene of the crime, Doerksen noticed the police, and purportedly returned home to imbibe five beers. Much of his account, unsurprisingly, turned out to be fictitious.

In any event, Doerksen asseverated the perpetrator’s face and overall appearance were etched indelibly on his memory. And he showed little hesitation in identifying “the guy” – in fact, over the next two months he pinpointed just about every tall man he came across as Stoppel’s assailant, each of whom was cleared of wrongdoing faster than you can say “exoneration.”

But there was one accusation that stuck. And incidentally, it was one of Doerksen’s more tentative efforts. It was only after some coaxing by an investigating policeman during a live line-up (also riddled with evidentiary issues, not the least of which the fact that one participant was clearly taller than the others) that Doerksen settled on Thomas Sophonow.

In fact, Doerksen and one other eyewitness, Norman Janower, both made diffident initial identifications of Sophonow, but their confidence grew over time – a clear sign that their minds were filling in the gaps in their memories. When Sophonow was finally vindicated in 2000, Janower affirmed the convicted murderer’s guilt more emphatically than ever before.

Sadly, we human beings greatly overestimate our own ability to memorize faces and physical descriptors and to multi-task, particularly in situations where we are likely to be distracted, or absorbed in one particular aspect of our environment. The monkey business illusion provides an ample illustration of this reality, and the reason why we must confide in eyewitness accounts of events and the individuals involved, only with the utmost circumspection.


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