Saturday, June 22, 2013

I Know You

I'm always somewhere between amused, bemused and a bit worried when laypeople (not to mention prosecutors) express confidence in the reliability of eyewitness identification. But it's just as easy to get it wrong in others ways, too.

An article on wrongful convictions was relating research connected to 250 men exonerated by DNA evidence and noted, "Of the 250, 76% were misidentified by an eyewitness — most of the witnesses having been led to that act by police and/or prosecutor, some of them badgered and threatened, others merely manipulated."

And while that's a fairly damning indictment of prosecutorial use of eyewitness testimony, it presumes that absent some sort of outside influence, the witnesses may have been more accurate, or realized that they didn't recognize anyone. I'm not sure I agree with that.

There are two pictures attached to this post. One of them is of me, who most people wouldn't know from a hole in the ground. One of them is of Mike Pondsmith, who's fairly well-known in tabletop roleplaying gaming circles as the author of Mekton and Cyberpunk. Now, we're both black, we're both into gaming and we both live in the Seattle area - I've run into Mr. Pondsmith at a few random places in the vicinity, from the beachfront to the Tulip Festival.

Since here's the part where I admit to borrowing this picture from Wikipedia, you can probably guess who this is.

Not from Wikipedia.
But the first time I encountered him was at NorwesCon, which is a local Science-Fiction and Fantasy convention. I was walking down the hall when someone stopped me and said that my panel would be starting soon. I was just about to ask the guy what the Hell he was talking about when Mr. Pondsmith walked up, and the convention staffer (and I) realized the error.

In the intervening years, I've been mistaken for Mr. Pondsmith on numerous occasions, to the point where I no longer bat an eyelash when someone walks up and addresses me as "Mike." I've had people even seek to continue conversations that they were having before. The first few times, they were met with blank looks and hurried interruptions, as I tried to figure out what was going on, but now I let them make their first point, and when they pause, I gently inform them that I'm not the droid they're looking for.

But this is the thing. People who are familiar and comfortable enough with Mike Pondsmith that they're willing to stop him in public and carry on a conversation don't realize that they're not talking to whom they think they're talking to.

Part if it is that Blacks aren't well-represented in tabletop gaming circles. Middle-aged Black guy... how many of them can there be in Nerd Central Station, right? And because we share certain interests, namely tabletop RPGs and science-fiction/mecha animé, we tend to move in intersecting circles and be seen in some of the same places. And if these photos are any indication, we have similar dress habits. (And I do, on occasion, wear my glasses.) But when people wisecrack, "All you people look alike," it's not as far off the mark as one might think it is. When we're not in the same place at the same time, the really distinguishing features, like differences in skin tone (even in the same light, our complexions are different), the fact that I have more gray, Mr. Pondsmith is taller and we wear our hair differently, simply aren't as apparent.

Given all of these things, I am never surprised to learn that an eyewitness identification turns out to be wrong. In fact, in light of my own experience and some of the research that's been done, I suspect that I should be surprised when they turn out to be right.

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