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Contradictory Ferguson Eyewitnesses Not Unusual

Dozens of eyewitnesses offered evidence about the death of Michael Brown, and much of it was confusing and contradictory. Here's why.

The grand jury investigation into the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., involved many contradictory eyewitness accounts. Dozens of people gave first-hand stories that turned out to be inaccurate, and according to "The New York Times," many of the iconic actions attributed to Brown were disputed by eyewitnesses. For example one eyewitness "dismissed the notion that Mr. Brown had raised his hands to the sky in a gesture that turned into a symbol for the protest movement in Ferguson."

As the Washington Post reported:

There were the dozens of witnesses, many of whom remembered conflicting versions of the same events. All claimed to have seen the final moments of Brown's life, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch said. They all claimed to have witnessed Ferguson cop Darren Wilson pump bullets into the youth. But that's just about where the similarities ended. And soon, as investigators sank deeper into a controversy with national implications, it was difficult to parse who saw what and who saw anything at all. "At least one witness stated that as Officer Wilson got out of his vehicle, he shot Mr. Brown multiple times as Mr. Brown stood next to the vehicle," McCulloch said. "Yet another witness stated that Officer Wilson stuck his gun out of the window and fired at Mr. Brown as Mr. Brown was running. One witness stated there were actually two police vehicles and four officers present, but only one officer fired a weapon."

Clearly all of these eyewitnesses cannot be accurately describing the same incident. Some eyewitnesses later admitted that though they were present they didn't actually see Brown get shot, while others had simply repeated what they'd heard others say they saw. But most eyewitnesses were sincere, honest people trying their best to accurately remember and report what they experienced - and many of them were wrong.

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This is not a sign of any hoaxing or cover-up, nor a botched police investigation, but instead a well-known phenomenon among psychologists and police detectives. Though the general public often puts great credence in seemingly irrefutable first-person eyewitness accounts, errors in perception and memory can and do influence recollections.

Memory Myths In 2011, the journal PLoS ONE published a study titled "What People Believe about How Memory Works: A Representative Survey of the U.S. Population," which surveyed 1,500 Americans about how they think memory works. The results were then compared to what a panel of 16 psychologist experts believed.

The study concluded that the public greatly overestimates the reliability of eyewitness testimony and recall. For example 63 percent of the respondents agreed that "human memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later." In contrast, every psychologist on the panel disagreed with that statement, noting that memory is far from perfect and quite fallible.

"Some people are puzzled by the fact that multiple eyewitnesses in the Ferguson case provided markedly different, even contradictory testimony about the nature of the shooting," Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld told Discovery News.

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"In reality, this shouldn't be terribly surprising, especially when a substantial amount of time has elapsed between the shooting and the crime reports," he said. "We know from a large body of research that eyewitness testimony, although hardly useless, can be quite fallible. Among other things, it can be affected by the mere passage of time, which allows other memories to interfere with the original memories. It can also be affected by people's expectations, hunches, and biases, as well as by post-event information - information that we've heard about the crime from other sources."

When two-thirds of the public overestimate the accuracy of eyewitnesses, this has important implications for the judicial system. The PLoS-ONE authors, Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris, note that "If jurors believe that memory works like a video camera, they will be more likely to trust witnesses who saw an event without realizing that different people may encode the same event differently or that memory can be distorted by subsequent events."

In some cases the physical evidence at the scene of Brown's shooting contradicted eyewitness accounts. For example according to the Huffington Post, one widely-circulated account reported that "A man who witnessed the incident while on his porch claimed that Brown was shot in the back while he was running away. According to his testimony, Brown then turned around, put up his hands, and said, ‘Don't shoot.'"

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However Brown could not have been shot in the back as described because his autopsy determined that "One of the bullets entered the top of Mr. Brown's skull, suggesting his head was bent forward when it struck him and caused a fatal injury, according to Dr. Michael M. Baden, the former chief medical examiner for the City of New York," who examined the body at the request of Brown's family.

The autopsy report clearly shows that all the bullets hit him from the front, and he had no injuries to his back. Investigation such as this helped the grand jury separate fact from fiction in this case.

Whether the public agrees or disagrees with the grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown, unreliable eyewitness testimony played a key role in the investigation and decision. Those basing their opinions on what a particular eyewitness described may be confronted with an equally believable eyewitness reporting something entirely different.

A protester holds his hands up outside the police station in Ferguson, Mo., on Nov. 25, during demonstrations a day after the grand jury decision in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old black teenager Michael Brown.

Police in riot gear observe protesters on the street near the police station in Ferguson, Mo., on Nov. 23, 2014. Officer Darren Wilson will not face charges, the St Louis County prosecutor said Monday night, in the killing of an unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown. The protests in Ferguson are just the most recent in a decades-long history of civil unrest following violence against African Americans. Here we look at notable cases which spurred a nationwide outcry.

In April of 1992, after a jury acquitted four police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, riots broke out throughout South Central Los Angeles, killing 55 people, injuring another 2,000, and causing more than $1 billion in damage. Above, a member of the National Guard stands near a burning building during the riots.

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Rodney King (right) delivered an emotional appeal calling for an end of the rampant violence that gripped Los Angeles.

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In 1989, three days of race riots began in Overtown, Miami, when a black man fleeing on a motorcycle was killed by a Hispanic police officer. During the riots, 125 blocks were sealed off.

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In 2009, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, which triggered riots in Oakland. Above, in July 2010, demonstrators in Oakland protested the verdict in Mehserle's trial. He was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and not guilty of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.

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Trayvon Martin, who was carrying only a bag of Skittles and iced tea, was shot in 2012 after an altercation with neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who pursued Martin on foot after being told not to by 911 dispatchers. A day after Zimmerman was found not guilty on all charges, protests were held around the United States. Above, a student-organized march at Washington Park in Chicago.

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Chicago native Emmett Till, 14, was murdered in 1955 by two white men in Mississippi after he allegedly flirted with the wife of one of the men. Above, Till's mother, Mamie E. Bradley (left), appears at the trial of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, who were charged with Till's murder. Bryant and Milam were acquitted though they later admitted to committing the crime. Till's mother insisted on a glass-topped casket to show how her son had been brutalized. The murder caused national outrage and helped fuel the civil rights movement. Till's family recently donated the casket to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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