Examples like this remind us of how inaccurate eyewitness testimony can be, whether it’s a witness to a crime in a court of law, or a hunter who claims he saw Bigfoot in the Oregon woods: You can’t always trust your eyes. What kinds of information do people normally forget? Research has found that eyewitness-identification testimony can be very unreliable. Their testimony has a strong effect on jurors. Neuroscience and behavioral research into memory cuts directly against confidence in eyewitness testimony expressed by police and jurors in surveys, writes psychologist Mark L. … All new gifts are being doubled by a generous group of Marshall Project supporters. However, it’s actually the opposite: if all the witnesses to an event give an identical testimony, there is reason to suspect collusion. Eyewitness Testimony and Criminal Trials . Eyewitness memory is reliable when initially tested using proper procedures, but the legal system nonetheless habitually relies on unreliable (contaminated) eyewitness evidence from later IDs. That form of analysis asks the question: based on whether the ID was correct or not, how well can you deduce the initial confidence of the witness? In fact, it’s easy manipulated whether intentionally and unintentionally. For example, if someone witnesses an armed robbery with a gun they’re attention is on the firearm, not on the assailant. This can, therefore, result in unreliable eyewitness testimony. John Timmer - Jul 25, 2017 5:25 pm UTC Within cognitive psychology, eyewitness testimony is heavily researched as juries tend to pay close attention to the details a witness is recalling. One academic who believes the relationship between initial confidence and accuracy is strong is John T. Wixted, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego. It can be suggested that juries should also consider the factors that could influence the recall of events as this is one of the reasons as to why eyewitness testimony may be seen as unreliable. It’s been able to definitively prove that eyewitness accounts were incorrect. Copyright © William Jaksa. In the US, mistaken eyewitness identification ended to 71% of wrongful convictions. For instance, distance and lighting can directly impact the accuracy of an eyewitness. Many parts of that paper read as a revision, if not outright rebuttal, of some of Wells’s scholarship. (He had tried and failed to kidnap her the previous year.) Poole eventually blabbed to another inmate that he was Jennifer Thompson’s true attacker. In an effort to reduce the risk of this sort of witness contamination, criminal justice reform advocates such as Wells and the Innocence Project have pushed for the adoption of a “double-blind” lineup system, in which no one accompanying the witness knows who the suspect is. Eyewitness testimony is not always about identifying the perpetrator. Yet now, over half a century later, eyewitness testimony continues to play a major role in criminal trials. Editorial: Eyewitness testimony is often unreliable and police and lawmakers know it Francisco “Franky” Carrillo, Jr., who was wrongfully imprisoned for 20 years, seated next to … His own work has made up the backbone of the party line that an initial confidence level, in his words, “has some diagnostic value or is useful but far from perfect.” Wells accuses Wixted and his coauthors of cherry-picking data to support their claims and says they have exaggerated the strength of the connection between initial confidence and accuracy. Law enforcement and the courts should follow the recommendations of social scientists when using and assessing eyewitness techniques, such as lineups, in criminal cases. This question—how confident witnesses are when they first identify a subject in a lineup—might seem like a minor detail. But it’s at the center of a vigorous debate among eyewitness memory experts. Memory is not as reliable as we would like to think. Traditionally, the lineup administrator knows who is the suspect and who are the nonsuspect “fillers.” This knowledge can contribute to miscarriages of justice—for example, if the administrators ask leading questions that sway the witness’s choice, such as, “Do you think it’s that guy?” These administrators can also make statements that inflate the witness’s confidence level, such as, “We thought that was the one,” or “Are you sure…?” Even unconscious cues such as body language may taint the selection process In the case of Ronald Cotton, there is significant evidence to suggest that leading remarks from the detective present when Jennifer Thompson identified Cotton pushed her to become increasingly certain about her suspect ID. Ontario criminal trials are back in session. Why Eyewitness Testimony Is Unreliable. Stress and fear affect our memory. Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia School of Law, for example, recently analyzed 161 cases of eyewitness misidentification that later resulted in DNA exonerations. When we don’t have all the details, our brains fill in the gaps in our memories. This is sometimes unfortunate because eyewitness memory is highly fallible. As the Thomson example illustrates, an eyewitness identification can even outweigh a strong alibi supported by other testimony. In the following video, a classroom experiment shows both the inaccuracy of eyewitness identification. For some time now, numerous eyewitness memory scholars have believed that, at least in some circumstances, there can be a modest relationship between how confident eyewitnesses say they were at the time of identifying a suspect (as opposed to during the trial) and the likelihood that they correctly selected the culprit from a lineup or an array of mug shots. If juries really can rely a great deal on a witness’s initial confidence level to help them decide if the defendant is guilty or innocent, then instructing jurors to trust that barometer could, at least in theory, help courts do a significantly better job of acquitting the innocent and convicting the guilty. So if the police show them a picture of a subject who vaguely matches their recollection, they’re more likely to accept it. Eyewitness testimony can be an incredibly compelling form of evidence during criminal justice proceedings in Austin. Eyewitness testimony is the account a bystander or victim gives in the courtroom, describing what that person observed that occurred during the specific incident under investigation. A real-life example of how flawed eyewitness testimony can be On behalf of Buting, Williams & Stilling, S.C. | Jun 4, 2015 | Criminal Defense We have previously written about the problems with relying on eyewitness testimony to solve crimes and secure convictions. Science — The science of why eyewitness testimony is often wrong Wrongful convictions are often the product of eyewitness testimony. Wixted vigorously denies these claims, pointing to an as-yet unpublished literature review he and his colleagues have written in order to further buttress their claims about the relationship between initial confidence levels and accuracy. Another 12 states have recommended these practices. Using either of the two mechanisms for forgetting, explain how this happens. Without objective evidence, the two are indistinguishable. This recollection is used as evidence to show what happened from a witness' point of view. Aim: To test their hypothesis that the language used in eyewitness testimony can alter memory. An eyewitness who steps into the witness box holds the jury’s full attention, as well as, that of the audience. The outcome of this debate could have important ramifications for the criminal justice system, and could add an important layer of nuance to the critiques of eyewitness testimony. To do so, it often uses information we receive later. Of course there is always the chance that an initially unsure witness has pointed to the right person, as happened with Carol DaRonch, whose ID of Ted Bundy in 1975 helped convict the serial killer. If these reforms had been put in place long ago, they might have spared Ronald Cotton more than a decade in prison for a rape he did not commit. 2 thoughts on “ Eyewitness Testimony is Unreliable ” Katherine Sharon Trimble October 24, 2014 at 12:30 am. As well, time plays havoc with our memories. Skeptics routinely bring up alleged contradictions in the eyewitness accounts (both in general, and in the case of the New Testament particularly), as proof that such testimony is unreliable. Altering details can be problematic because if an eyewitness testimony squanders, then it may be dismissed from the case. So memory can be remarkably accurate or remarkably inaccurate. Eyewitnesses statements often play a vital role in securing criminal convictions – police surveys show that eyewitness testimony is the main form of … Thompson picked out Cotton in the lineup and was sure it was him. Wells and Wixted agree on one point: that juries should be instructed to consider only a witness’s initial confidence level and to disregard any subsequent expressions of confidence or recollections of confidence—so long as the initial confidence level was actually recorded and the lineup was conducted under fair circumstances. Studies have been showing significant concern over their accuracy, all the way back to the 1960s. Benjamin Ryan is an editor at large at POZ magazine, where he covers the science of HIV and hepatitis C. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, New York magazine, The New York Observer, Men’s Journal, Out, and The Advocate. An eyewitness may not be reliable for several reasons -- and they don't all have to do … Concerns over eyewitness testimony are nothing new in criminal trials. Wixted found that taking filler ID data out of his analyses ultimately reveals a stronger—and he believes more true—relationship between initial confidence and accuracy. A Skeptic Reads the Newspaper. A number of experts in the eyewitness testimony field say they generally support the new American Psychologist paper. This can be the result of racial bias or simply due to racial disparity. Eyewitness testimony is a potent form of evidence for convicting the accused, but it is subject to unconscious memory distortions and biases even among the most confident of witnesses. They take our attention away from the finer details, like someone’s appearance, and focus on the threat instead. Other research has specifically pointed to this sort of confidence-inflation as a factor in wrongful convictions. For example, someone may not remember what an assailant looked like, but they are subconsciously open to suggestion. This is no small difference. But this is the wrong question, Wixted says. The fact the eyewitness testimony can be unreliable and influenced by leading questions is illustrated by the classic psychology study by Loftus and Palmer (1974) Reconstruction of Automobile Destructiondescribed below. Ideally this recollection of events is detailed; however, this is not always the case. Especially when they see something unfamiliar or under stress. With a look. All Rights Reserved. Eyewitness identifications greatly sway both police and juries. To the swelling chorus of activists and researchers who argue that eyewitness testimony is both fundamentally unreliable and over-relied upon, the Cotton case is a prime example of what can go tragically wrong when court cases hinge on human recollection. As well as how easy it is to distort witness memory: “I’ll believe it when I see it,” or, “I saw it with my own eyes.” People put a lot of faith in what they see, but it may be misplaced. When considering highly confident witnesses in particular, Wixted says that other academics have mistakenly downplayed the reliability of these individuals’ trial testimony in another way. Thompson’s confident testimony was instrumental in prompting the jury to convict. He is the lead author of paper in the September 2015 issue of American Psychologist in which he and his coauthors argue that the other camp of researchers, those who have found a null-to-modest relationship between initial witness confidence and accuracy, relied on the wrong type of statistical analysis. In 1985, a young white woman named Jennifer Thompson told a North Carolina courtroom that the man on trial, Ronald Cotton, a black restaurant dishwasher, had broken into her apartment and raped her at knifepoint the year before. He found that more than half of the initial trials involved a witness who, like Jennifer Thompson, was unsure at the time of the suspect ID, but who then expressed confidence in his or her choice when testifying in a courtroom. Days after the rape, she hesitated over six mug shot options for almost five minutes before she finally selected Cotton’s picture and uttered a tentative “I think this is the guy.” And she waffled a good deal before fingering him during a police lineup later on. Witnesses may also be asked about the facts of the case. Eyewitness testimony can be unreliable due to conditions at the scene of a crime, memory “contamination” and misrepresentation during trial. We look at the offences he may […], Famous last words: Pearls of wisdom from the gems we lost this year … https://t.co/wmALha0Wlu 4 days ago, Check out this Covid employment law CPD! In 2014, the National Academy of Sciences gave an academic imprimatur to such reforms, recommending, among other changes, that criminal investigators adopt a double-blind system, make a record of confidence levels, and also videotape the suspect selection proceedings. Police can plant false memories in witnesses by asking leading questions or using suggesting language. The right question is: based on the level of initial eyewitness confidence, how well can you predict whether the ID was correct? The second reason eyewitness testimony is unreliable has to do with the nature of memory. A confident witness can be quite dangerous to a case. “By the time the witness reaches trial, their confidence is likely to be very misleading,” said Ruth Horry, a psychology lecturer at Swansea University in Wales, “since confidence tends to inflate over time, as the witness comes to believe that their ID must have been correct—otherwise, why would the police be prosecuting the suspect?”. Paying particular attention to the lack of initial confidence in such a case could lead to a faulty acquittal. Concerns over eyewitness testimony are nothing new in criminal trials. If you or a loved one are facing charges in a case of mistaken identity, you need a lawyer with experience in challenging evidence and eyewitness testimony. Eyewitness identifications play an important role in the investigation and prosecution of crimes, but it is well known that eyewitnesses make mistakes, often with serious consequences. The more time that passes between the event and the retelling, the more the memory tends to change. But in the real world these witnesses who pick a filler don’t take the stand. Is eyewitness testimony too unreliable to trust? Despite the known unreliability of eyewitness testimony, it remains an effective tool. Studies have been showing significant concern over their accuracy, all the way back to the 1960s. The Ontario Court of Justice resumed criminal case management matters as of November […], In his attempt to steal Christmas, the Grinch committed a litany of crimes. Perhaps the most important thing to note is that, even though there is a popular perception of eyewitness testimony being among the most reliable forms of evidence available, the criminal justice system treats such testimony as being among the most fragile and even unreliable available. Loftus and Palmer (1974) Study. Incorrect information given to the eyewitness, usually after the event which can unintentionally distort the memory of the original crime. The need for honest and independent journalism is more urgent than ever. Eyewitness testimony is an important area of research in cognitive psychology and human memory. The other researchers typically count this as a wrong guess in their calculations to deduce the reliability of eyewitnesses who take the stand. Mistaken eyewitness identifications contributed to approximately 71% of the more than 360 wrongful convictions in the United States overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence.• Inaccurate eyewitness identifications can confound investigations from the earliest stages. In this article, take a look at the problems with eyewitness testimony. Some 75% of the wrongful convictions for rape and murder, including a number that led to people being scheduled for execution, were based on eyewitness testimony. Thompson seemed like an ideal witness; she had kept calm during the rape, carefully studying her attacker’s appearance in case she was later called upon to identify him. In the opposite camp is Iowa State University professor Gary Wells, the most prominent academic in the eyewitness field. This effect can also happen if the subject lacks distinctive features, or if there is any obstruction to seeing them. Why can eyewitness testimony be unreliable? Reading your post made me think of one case I learned about in high school. As it happened, Cotton wound up in prison with a man named Bobby Poole, who was also in for rape and who so resembled Cotton the two were often mistaken for one another. Implications of Corrupt Eyewitness Testimony. The most reliable parts of old memories are usually those most pertinent to the person recalling them. To the swelling chorus of activists and researchers who argue that eyewitness testimony is both fundamentally unreliable and over-relied upon, the Cotton case is a prime example of what can go tragically wrong when court cases hinge on human recollection. Ronald Cotton had supposedly attacked Jennifer Thompson. Bartlett tested this theory using a variety of stories to illustrate that memory is an active process … DNA evidence has played a big role in proving the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. ), Nonprofit journalism about criminal justice, A nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Here’s the thing, testimony from eyewitnesses is not always reliable. September 4, 2019. As stated before, a lot of eyewitness testimony can rely solely on memory. It’s easier for people to accurately identify strangers of a similar racial background to their own. As a result, the witness may accuse the wrong person. Cotton was sentenced to life plus 50 years. This causes problems for not only the wrongfully accused, but also for the police, who may stop pursuing other leads. Even if the information is incorrect, a witness’ confidence can make a jury believe they are hearing an undeniable truth. Yet now, over half a century later, eyewitness testimony continues to play a major role in criminal trials. Most people who witness a crime experience stress and/or fear. So even if they were unsure when selecting someone from a lineup they will, over time become convinced that they are certain. What is misleading information? Ronald Cotton,left, and Bobby Poole photographed at the time of their arrests. So jurors not only hear unreliable testimony from an older witness, but they're likely more convinced of that testimony because of the eyewitness's confidence. If the police do not follow careful methodology, such as using double-blinds and getting descriptions before showing suspects witnesses, they can alter their memory. But what the jury didn’t know is that Thompson had been quite unsure of her choice when she initially identified Cotton. And some experts in the field go so far as to say that the relationship between initial confidence and accuracy is actually quite strong. Thirteen states now require local police departments to use double-blind procedures, as well as to record the confidence levels of eyewitnesses when they select a suspect. The academics’ mistake, he says, is to include in their analyses data from participants in controlled studies who point to a figure in the lineup who is not a suspect—a volunteer known as a “filler.” (In 20 to 25 percent of the 75,000 police lineups conducted annually, the witness picks a filler.) So the memory of other people and their appearance can change or fade. In short, the ripple effect causes witnesses to double down after they accuse someone. You can help us meet this need by becoming a member today. In fact, there are several issues that can arise when it comes to eyewitness testimony, which in turn, makes the testimony of an eyewitness unreliable in court. Explain how certain aspects of memory (for example, capacity or duration) make eyewitness testimony unreliable. Chad Dodson, of the University of Virginia, for one, says that academics in the field of general memory research “have known for decades that under most conditions confidence is reliably associated with recognition accuracy.” Wixted’s analyses, Dodson and his colleague at UVA David Dobolyi both say, correctly apply this scientific principle to suspect identification. The ripple effect is a common problem with eyewitness testimony. Jurors can determine and conclude that the eyewitness is unreliable (Bryant, 2020). (Twitter. Robbery Charges and Armed Robbery Charges, As a result, the witness may accuse the wrong person, Ontario Courts Reopening for Criminal Trials. Because people's memories can be fragile and are often easily distorted. But by the time she took the stand she was steadfast. If you take this approach, the paper argues, the true relationship between initial confidence and accuracy is revealed, and it is strong. Also, there are many ways that the criminal justice system can, purposefully or not, contaminate an eyewitness’s perspective during the suspect ID process and inflate their confidence on the spot. In fact, concerns about the reliability of eyewitness testimony were almost completely ignored for over 20 years. Researchers have found that the words investigators use to gather facts can influence how people respond when asked about the details of an event. Despite the scientific consensus that eyewitness testimony is unreliable and the Supreme Court’s recognition that “the annals of criminal law are rife with instances of mistaken identification,” eyewitness identification testimony remains among the most convincing evidence presented to jurors (Manson v. Brathwaite, 1977). Then in, 1989 the first person was exonerated through the use of DNA evidence. Eyewitness testimony is key but just how reliable is at work about the find out. As well, eyewitnesses show a much higher rate of error when trying to identify people of a different race. After 10 years of incarceration, Thompson got his conviction overturned thanks to DNA evidence proving that Poole was in fact the culprit. William Jaksa is a Toronto criminal defence lawyer who will help you understand your options and potential outcomes. Benjamin Radford. https://t.co/jU6uua9OFq 37 days ago, Office: 416-900-0998 Toll Free: 1 844 LAW WILL Fax: 647 439 1566, 43 Front St. East, Suite 400, Toronto, Ontario, M5E 1B3. November 4, 2011 Every year, more than 75,000 eyewitnesses identify criminal suspects, but as … You can help US meet this need by becoming a member today aim to... To kidnap her the previous year. witness is recalling focus on the level of initial and! Time of their arrests crime, memory “contamination” and misrepresentation during trial memory “contamination” and misrepresentation during trial which... 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