Psychology Today

False Memories and Eye Witness Accounts

"Man shot dead in cold blood in the street," one woman claims

On March 3rd, 2014, Mrs. Thelma Parker was a witness to a murder in a small town in Georgia. She says she saw everything clearly unfold after she was walking out of a Walmart. After a man was shot, she called 911, and police officers and ambulances arrived on the scene, but it was too late. However, the next day the police brought her in for questioning to find out everything that happened.
The interviewer asked what happened. She responded with "Well, I was at Walmart around 9 pm to buy my cats some food and more things to scratch on since they've been tearing up my couch lately, and I walk out to find two men fighting. They were yelling about money or something, and they were very angry. Then, one hit the other and a fist fight broke out. One looked Hispanic and the other white. This was all across the street from me (McLeod). Anyway, all of a sudden, in the middle of fighting, the white man pulled out a knife and started running at the Hispanic one. In response, the Hispanic man took out a gun and immediately shot him. He looked around, and ran away. I called 911, police and ambulances came, I gave a brief description of the Hispanic man, and this morning they called me in for questioning." Then, after shown a line-up of possible people that could have committed the crime, Mrs. Parker chose Mr. Rojas. She was testifying against him 8 months later (Arkowitz, Lilienfield). The jury found him to be guilty, and he was put behind bars for manslaughter.
One year after Rojas was in prison, the Innocence Project found him to actually be not guilty. Recent studies have showed that in crimes where there are weapons involved, eyewitnesses are more likely to only focus on the weapons and not pay attention to the criminal's faces. This particularly crime had 2 weapons, making it even more unlikely that Mrs. Parker got a good look at the men's faces. Also, it happened at least 50 feet away, meaning even if she got a good look at their faces, she still wouldn't have been able to see much more than general features (Bryant), meaning that the Hispanic man could probably have been any of the men she was shown. Not to mention, high-stress situations constitute for an environment causing high susceptibility to false memories, meaning that Mrs. Parker might not have remembered everything correctly, causing a false recollection of the event. The cold blooded killer is still out there, walking free.