Monday, August 1, 2011

Eyewitness Identification

I am in Atlanta with Chief Justice Jefferson, attending our annual meeting of the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators. On Sunday night I walked to dinner with six colleagues, at a nearby restaurant here in Buckhead, a high-end retail area of town. Returning at about ten, chatting and walking, I noticed that we were passed on the sidewalk by a group of young men. I confess, I noticed they were African-American. The next thing I knew, one man rushed forward and grabbed the purse of one of my colleagues. She resisted mightily, shouted "no," and he pulled a pistol from his waistband. They pulled back and forth, about ten feet in front of me and most of the group. I was transfixed. I studied the gun, watching to see if he was going to point it at anyone, which he never did. I had a fleeting thought of dialing 911 on the phone in my pocket. I was alarmed and felt cowardly when one of my male colleagues rushed forward, and I thought he was going to get shot; he stopped short and nothing happened. I imagined having the gun turned on me. Somehow another female colleague suddenly sat down, I think the same one man tried to grab her purse too and pulled her off balance. But as quickly as it had started, it ended, the gun wielder gave up, said "step off," and began walking quickly away. His three cohorts were left behind, very close to where I was standing, sort of cowering beside a big retail sign; it was almost comical, one raised his hands and said "we don't have guns, we're not with him," as we gathered ourselves and began walking quickly back to the hotel, shaken but unhurt. The women who had been actually assaulted were later interviewed by the police, but I was not. Had I been, my information would have been quite useless, in spite of the singularity and vividness of those few moments. I could not recreate anything more than a generic description of any of the four young men, nor describe their clothes. I think I could've picked out the gun if there was such a thing as a gun lineup, but that is about it. I learned later that my colleagues and I did not even agree on the number of young men.


  1. For resources on eyewitness identification see the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel website at