`Eyewitnesses' often embellish, experts say

People may get caught up by events, want to impress or to feel a part of history

October 18, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Experts in human deception say it's not unusual for people caught up in dramatic events to embellish the details of where they were and what they saw. They often just want to impress people or to feel they're part of important events.

But such "eyewitnesses" cross the line when they go to police with their stories.

"Telling your friends you saw the guy ... is not good, but at least it's not drawing resources away from the investigation," said Rutgers University psychologist Mark G. Frank.

Fairfax County police said yesterday that they've discarded an account from a "witness" who had provided the most detailed clues to Monday night's sniper shooting in Falls Church, Va.

The person told police he saw a man step out of a cream-colored van, shoulder an AK-74 assault rifle and fatally shoot a 47-year-old FBI analyst outside a Home Depot store.

Fairfax County police Lt. Amy Lubas said the account was discredited by others at the scene.

Police were still investigating to determine whether the man would be charged in the deception.

A description of the sniper as dark-skinned, Hispanic or Middle Eastern that emerged in the news media after the Falls Church shooting has also apparently been discounted by police.

People who invent such stories are most likely to turn up during high-profile events, experts said.

"People like to be close to the center of the action and to be part of something really big," said Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology and criminology at the University of California at Irvine.

"Oftentimes, people who do that want to be helpful," she said. "But if he's made up details, he's hurting the situation immensely by diverting people" from the real investigation.

A big reward might attract phony witnesses hoping to get lucky if the investigation turns the right way. Others might be trying to deflect attention from other problems.

Last week, a man who had broken the passenger-side window in his employer's van told police that it had been shot out at an intersection in Linthicum.

Investigators detailed to the Washington-area sniper case rushed to the scene and quickly saw through the ruse. The man was charged with filing a false police report.

"The No. 1 motive for men to tell lies that they admit to, is ... to impress other people," Frank said. The lies that women admit to are more likely to be those meant "to spare someone's feelings."

People who find themselves close to an event that's making headlines and TV newscasts might begin to feel they're a part of history and seek to impress others. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Frank said, many people in New Jersey talked about their close links to the catastrophe.

"It becomes like a fish story. Their involvement becomes bigger, with a few more details," he said. "It's more interesting, more dramatic, the closer you are."

Even when the police get involved, such phony witnesses might stay committed to their stories "because they don't want to look bad to friends," Frank said. "The pressures are such that you feel this will make you more accepted or push you into the limelight in some way."

Some people even begin to believe their own fabrications.

"People with dissociative disorders are more likely to manipulate themselves into believing things that haven't happened," Frank said. He cited cases in which children had accused adults of mass sexual abuse - accusations that later proved to be false.

Psychopaths might lie to investigators "for the thrill of it, without worrying about the consequences," he said. "It makes life more interesting."

Leading questions from police might also prompt someone who is eager to be helpful to "remember" things he or she never actually saw. Skilled interrogators are careful to ask open-ended questions, such as, "What did you see?" as opposed to, "Did you see the gun?"

"Research has shown that things you know prior to the event you've witnessed and things that happen after you witness an event can affect the ultimate form of the memory," Frank said.

People in the Washington area - all potential witnesses - have been "primed" by news accounts of a suspect driving a white van and shooting an assault rifle.

"It's like a white bear," said Gary L. Wells, a psychology professor at Iowa State University and an expert on witnesses. "You tell people, `Don't think about a white bear,' and all they can think about is a white bear."

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