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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Crime night out


Capital Crime Writers (CCW) featured guest, Carleton University's Dr. Joanna Pozzulo.

Six years ago I received a registered letter that was delivered to my parent’s home that summoned me to jury duty in Montreal. As I was no longer a resident of Quebec, for three years at the point, I had to hire a notary public in Ottawa to sign an affidavit to decline this summons. Although I was initially excited to get such an invitation, I had no idea of what kind of crime was involved. Sitting on the jury could have be my chance to serve justice, if not just a few days but perhaps a few weeks off work. This romantic notion quickly wore off and I soon went about seeking legal advice to get myself off the hook from this civic obligation.

Dr. Joanna Pozzulo lectured on the topic 'eye witness identification' and 'recall memory' at the Capital Crime Writers last formal meeting of their season. Her lecture began by showing a brief videotaped “staged crime”. Pretty simple task: closely watch the crime scene unfold, mentally take note of the events which transpired, and get an accurate description of the perpetrator. The usual descriptions like gender, age, race, height, weight and distinguishing marks would all come into play as we would have to identify the culprit in a photo line up shown to us at the end of the evening's presentation. Certainly one of the six men in the rogues’ gallery was guilty of the crime we witnessed. Or was he?

Turns out that most of us in the room were wrong, myself included. All of the six men in the mock line up were indeed innocent. I picked the number four man as I was certain he was the one who committed the crime I saw. Sure, he had a similar looking leather jacket as the man who appeared in the earlier footage. Sure, he may have shaved his beard off in an attempt to fool the eye witnesses. But it turns out I may have been responsible for sending an innocent man to jail. Whoops! I was sure that at least one of the six must have been guity. Thankfully this was just a staged crime.

Barbara Fradkin, Chair of the Capital Crime Writers, said the part she liked best about Dr. Pozzulo’s background is that she enjoys watching crime shows and that she’s a dedicated fan of the original Law & Order series. Dr. Pozzulo is a Professor in the Department of Psychology and Director of Criminology in the Criminal Justice Program at Carleton University. Her research focuses on understanding memory in an applied context. Specfically, she’s concerned with how children and adults remember crimes and criminals. To that end, she’s interested in developing police procedures to maximize the selection of reliable identification evidence and eye witness testimony.

Like Dr. Pozzulo I confess to enjoying crime television. I don’t know her particular attraction to this genre but for me it began with Angie Dickinson who played Sgt. Suzanne "Pepper" Anderson in the 70s TV show Police Woman who helped turn me on to watching crime TV. My enjoyment was further developed watching Jack Klugman a.k.a. “Quincy, M.E.”, who is shown, uh, examining the torso of a bikini-clad woman during the show's opening sequence of this eponymously named television program. Even today, I don’t particularly mind watching Marg Helgenberger in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

What struck me most was Pozzulo’s discussion of effective interview techniques for eye witnesses and the factors that influence recall and recognition memory. Notice the difference in the two following questions a police officer may ask an eye witness to a crime: “Did you see the weapon?” versus “Did you see a weapon?”

Upon reflection, you should see how these two simple words, “the” and “a”, can be used in a way where the first question is leading, thus misinformation may be introduced to the witness with potentially huge legal implications. The former question implies there was a weapon, while the latter is a unbiased question.

It’s guest lecturers like Dr. Pozzulo who prove to be an invaluable asset to the members of the Capital Crime Writers of Ottawa. Budding crime writers can learn and apply the “facts” which may serve as fodder for their forthcoming short stories and novels. The CCW group meets again on Monday, June19, 2006 at Patty's Place Pub at 7pm to share some of their current stories.

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