WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA) -- If you witnessed a crime, or were the victim of one, would you be able to identify a suspect?
Eyewitness misidentifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project. The numbers are staggering. Inaccurate eyewitness accounts contributed to more than 75% of the 260 wrongful convictions in the United States, all overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence.
"I just broke down and started crying," said Marvin Anderson, remembering the day he was convicted.
He spent 15 years in prison for rape, abduction and robbery. Crimes he did not commit.
"I'm living proof every day that eyewitness identification is not enough to convict any person," said Anderson.
He landed behind bars because of an inaccurate eyewitness account, despite his strong alibi and numerous discrepancies in the case. He was ultimately exonerated by DNA evidence.
Today, he's a lieutenant with the Hanover, Virginia volunteer fire department and runs his own trucking company.
How difficult is it to be a good witness? We enlisted the help of respected University of Maryland criminology professor Tom Mauriello and his unsuspecting students-about to be eyewitnesses to a crime we staged in their lecture hall.
The lights went out suddenly. The blood-curdling scream of a woman cut through the silence. As the lights returned, the class saw a white man stealing the laptop of a black woman. As often happens, the perpetrator of the crime was only visible to startled eyewitnesses for a matter of seconds.
The students' recollections were varied:
"He seems Caucasian to me. I was more focusing on her because she was the one screaming."
"I jumped back and I was disoriented. Lights were off. Very confused what was going on. By the time I realized, I think I could have seen his face had I not been so nervous."
"I couldn't really see what he looked like. More, the screams were overwhelming from the victim."
Many students focused entirely on the victim.
"She appeared to be white."
"She had blondish hair, midway down her back."
'I'm not sure if it was a tattoo but I don't know if her pants dipped too low, but I did see maybe her underwear hanging out, or maybe it was a tattoo, I'm not sure."
Or, the students remembered what the suspect was wearing.
"The guy was caucasian and he had a darkish color baseball cap, grey shirt and jeans from what I could tell."
Proximity to the crime didn't guarantee a better description of the suspect.
"I was sitting probably less than five feet away. I didn't catch a glimpse of anything."
We asked students who sat at different locations in the lecture hall what they witnessed.
'He was a white male, I think he had sandy brown hair. Possibly 5'10."
'I want to say facial hair, but I'm skeptical of saying it. I don't have a 'beyond a reasonable doubt' saying it."
We asked if the students noticed any permanent characteristics on either the victim or the suspect, as opposed to just their clothing?
"Aside from their skin color, not really," one student told us.
We wondered if a deaf student in the class might have heightened powers of visual observation.
"I wasn't paying as much attention to the guy but the girl was dark skinned and dark haired, she had a black shirt and jeans on. Short sleeved shirt," she told 9News.
Indeed, she had a vivid description, but only of the victim.
We asked, 'Was the guy white, black, any identifying characteristics , like facial hair, glasses, anything you remember?' She shook her head no.
As often happens, the shock of witnessing a crime impeded the students' ability to recall critical details.
"If I had been expecting it, I would have taken better note of everything that was going on."
"He was white. A little skinny. Short maybe. Well, short for me. 5'5."
"He was slender. I would say 5'9." No way over 180 pounds."
"He looked like he was about my height, I'm about 5'8."
After the crime, we introduced our victim and our suspect to the class.
And we asked our "suspect" his height and weight.
Students pegged his height at 5'5" to 5'10"; the highest weight estimate was 180 pounds. In reality, he is six feet tall and weighs 205 pounds.
No one even noticed one of the only permanent features on him-a distinctive tattoo on his upper arm.
Fifteen years ago, Professor Thomas Mauriello staged a dramatic purse-snatching in his classes.
"A white suspect was stealing a purse from a black woman.1026 The lights went out just like this evening," he told 9News.
But Mauriello and the suspect were both armed.
'He turned around and pulled a gun on me, at which point I pulled a gun on him and we actually fired guns," said Mauriello.
The guns fired blanks, but the stress of that scenario led to startling, inaccurate perceptions.
'A number of them saw a black man stealing from a white woman, when it was just the opposite,' he said.
Proof that even things that unfold right before your eyes are not always what they seem.
Not only were we surprised by how differently students viewed the same crime, we were stunned that no one attempted to help the victim.
To be a good witness, look for either a permanent physical characteristic, like a scar, a limp, an accent, or even a missing tooth, rather than focusing only on a suspect's clothing. But if there is something unique or unusual about the what the suspect is wearing-maybe an unusual logo on a ball cap-that may be worth noting.
Written by Andrea McCarren
9NEWS NOW & wusa9.com