Twenty-six year old Josh Higgins, an out of work reporter was found murdered in his mother’s house in New Jersey at 6 p.m. Sunday, 21st May, 2011. The coroner’s report proved that Josh was drunk and probably passed out when his throat was slit with a kitchen knife. Although initial suspects included Josh’s step father, his mother, a few of his subjects during his years working in crime and several others, three months of investigation led the police to Josh’s current girlfriend Amanda Seyenne, a 23 year old Asian-American medical student who, now accused, faces trial for manslaughter. The approximate time of death was presumed to be 5 p.m. Amanda was the last person to have visited Josh (according to her own testimony, at 3 p.m.) and has no proven alibi in the time slot of 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Although, she claims that she has left Josh before the clock struck four, there were no witnesses to prove this. On the other hand, there were three witnesses who saw her going in at 3 p.m. The prime witness, Mrs. Alicia Gonsalves, a 50 year old widow living right opposite the street to the Higgins’, has seen exiting the house at around 5:00 p.m., just an hour or so before Josh’s mother and his step father returned from a barbeque to find the dead body.
Mrs. Gonsalves has seen Amanda walk towards the house at 3 p.m. from the left side (this was confirmed as Amanda was dropped by a friend at the entrance of the street) and when she exited at 6, she walked towards the right where the bus stop is (also in accordance, except for the timing). The interesting part of this testimony was, while Mrs. Gonsalves was very sure of the time of occurrence of both events, it was revealed that she does not have a wall clock or a wrist watch, and was not in the habit of looking at a clock.
The time perception of Mrs. Gonsalves thereby becomes a matter of interest for the defence lawyer. In the first case, that is the event of entrance at 3 pm, the witness was questioned during cross examination as to how she was aware of the time to which, she replied that her daughter, who was a primary school teacher in Pennsylvania has called just around that time like she does every day after her school day. Mrs. Gonsalves used the inference to perceive time by using routine and past events to presume the time of the present (“Perception of Time”, 2011). The time perception of the second event when she saw Miss Seyenne exiting was also probed into. This time, Mrs. Gonsalves claimed that around the time she saw Miss Seyenne exiting the Higgins’ house, she also saw the autistic girl from the apartment building next doors to the Higgins being taken on her daily outing in the park. Since she always knew that the autistic girl is taken out around five to spend at least a half hour in the park, Miss Gonsalves inferred that the exit time must be around 5:15 to 5:30. The defence takes a little detour here to point out that the park is at least ten minutes away by walk and it doesn’t make sense that the girl should return so soon. Mrs. Gonsalves falters and the defence cites psychological research that suggests that older people perceive their days at least five times shorter than children (Buccheri et al., 2000). That is older people feel that their days are shorter which means the passage of time feels shorter as well.
The defence then moves on to asking Miss Gonsalves about the autistic girl. She doesn’t know the family personally, but the story was apparent enough through observation. Then she is asked who takes the girl to the park every day, to which Miss. Gonsalves has no concrete answer except to say, ‘someone other than the parents’. When pressed, Miss Gonsalves suddenly realises that it is a female caregiver, also Asian.
Depth perception and top-down processing. They jury however was not phased. They’ve seen the woman’s photograph and the defendant, while similar in looks, was way taller than the Chinese immigrant who was only 4’ 11”. The defence explains to the court about top-down processing. Top down processing is a theory in cognitive psychology that discusses the organisation of sensory information in the human brain. It says that previous experiences coupled with the current context dictate perception or recognition that happens in the present. Expectations also cause comprehension of the current situation to differ from what it actually is. After explaining the phenomenon, defence produces the first recorded statement of Mrs. Gonsalves that the police took briefly after the investigation started. In the statement, she described the suspect as a short and lean Asian woman with waist length hair. When the police showed her a picture of Miss. Seyenee however, she recognised immediately. Miss. Seyenne is of medium height with shoulder length hair. However, the police rode off this discrepancy at that time, as no other Asian woman’s name came up in the door to door questioning.
The order of the police questioning was like this:
Q: Did you see anyone entering the Higgins’ building this afternoon?
A: Yes, a girl, at around three.
Q: Did you see her leave?
A: Yes, I think so…(pauses for a while), at about five in the evening.
Q: Are you sure about that?
A: Yes, absolutely.
Q: Can you describe this woman for us?
A: Asian. Normal height…actually, a bit short. Around 5’ 3” or so.
It just so happened that Mrs. Gonsalves confused the sight of the Asian caregiver leaving the building to that of Amanda’s because of the problem with her time perception. According to the caregiver’s testimony, her ward was feeling sick that evening, so they had to return home half way to the park. So she dropped the child off and walked past the Higgins house as she left. Here the defence explains the phenomenon of size perception. The Higgins house is closer in distance to Mrs. Gonsalves than the apartment.
The question of the suspect’s size came after Mrs.Gonsalves made the mistake of confusing identities. So, according to top down processing in this case, size is a ‘detail’ that comes after the identity. Normally, size perception occurs through relativity. The retinal angle (the angle projected by an object) increasing as the object moves closer making it look bigger. Combining this information with previous knowledge gives a good estimate of the depth and size of the object. But the previous knowledge here is not of the same woman, as Mrs. Gonsalves tried to retrieve Miss. Seyennes size information from memory. Seyenne is 5’ 7” and the information just didn’t match with the puny Asian woman. So while discerning the details in top-down processing, Mrs. Gonsalves mind settled on the mid figure of 5’ 3” in describing the suspect.
Boosted through this information, the defence also explains to the jury about the relative phenomenon of “Confirmation Bias” where preconceived notions and hypothesis of a particular person are aided through facts in their own mind to be presented as the truth (Plous, 1993). The witness is discredited by proving that it is actually the caretaker who was leaving that Mrs. Gonsalves has seen that evening and not Miss Seyenne.
Le Poidevin, R. Zalta, N.R. (ed.). (2011). The Experience and Perception of Time. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition) Retrieved November 9, 2011 from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/time-experience
R. Buccheri, V. Di Gesù, Metod, S. (Eds.). (2000). Studies of the structure of time, from physics to psycho(patho)logy. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
Plous, S. (1993). The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making. New York: McGraw-Hill