"Hundreds of judges at a judicial conference last week were shown a slide with various diagrams of pennies.
The speaker wanted to know: Which of the 13 diagrams depicted a true penny?
Some diagrams had Abe Lincoln facing left, the others right. Some had the year of issue on the lower right, others had it elsewhere on the coin. Some had "In God We Trust" written across the top, while others had it on the bottom.
You get the idea.
Most of the judges — hundreds of General District and Juvenile and Domestic Relations judges from around the state attending the annual conference — honed in on number 7 or 8.
Yet in fact, none of the penny renditions was correct, said Karen Newirth, an eyewitness identification expert at the Innocence Project, a group that works to reverse wrongful convictions. Only one of the judges — out of hundreds sitting in the audience at the Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach — said the answer was "none of the above."
That simple exercise, Newirth told the judges, demonstrates why police detectives need to clearly tell witnesses in criminal cases that the actual culprits might not be in the group of photos a witness is being shown.
If Newirth had told the judges ahead of time that the answer to her penny question could be "none of the above," many judges might have come to that conclusion. As it was, however, that possibility didn't seem to even cross the judges' minds.
Newirth then showed the judges a video of a half-court youth basketball game. She asked them to count the number of times that the white-shirted team members passed the ball to each other, not counting bounce passes.
"How many of you noticed the gorilla in the room?" Newirth asked after the video.
The crowd of judges was surprised when she played the video again. In the middle of the video, a large black gorilla walks through the center of the court, waves directly at the camera and jumps up and down.
You can't miss it. Yet only one judge out of hundreds noticed it the first time — so busy they were trying to count the passes.
That's just like real life, Newirth said: When you're focused on something else — such as a suspect's gun — in a crime, you're less likely to notice other things, such as his height or facial features. All the more reason, she said, for judges in the audience to treat eyewitness testimony as the fallible evidence that it is."