cases where eyewitness testimony is reliable

By Jon Cohen, Dennis NormileDec. Blood and fingerprint evidence, per se, would not be deemed unreliable. University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett analyzed trial materials for 161 DNA exonerated individuals who had been misidentified with high confidence by one or more eyewitnesses in a court of law. Because of examples like these, the U.S. justice system has been changing how eyewitnesses are used in criminal cases. Researchers are increasingly finding that the problem with eyewitness testimony is based on a common misunderstanding of how memory functions. Subscribers get more award-winning coverage of advances in science & technology. Not so with eyewitness memory. Using surveys, researchers could acquire jurors' options regarding the presented expert testimony, and what qualities made the testimony reliable or unreliable (e.g., Cutler, Penrod, & Dexter, 1989). The findings indicate that eyewitnesses can be easily fooled into confident false memories, and that showing them photographs sequentially reduces false identification. In a recent review of the literature, the authors reported across 15 experiments, suspect identifications made with high confidence were, on average, 97 percent accurate! Memory is not as reliable as we would like to think. 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. External input makes eyewitness testimony unreliable. Also, in cases where little material evidence can be collected, eyewitnesses are the focus for reaching a verdict. Weapon focus refers to a factor that affects the reliability of eyewitness testimony. And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Gareth, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, is the series editor of Best American Infographics and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas. What would that mean for the reliability of the blood or fingerprint evidence, for example, collected at that scene? The murder victim’s cold case evidence was there because the case had recently been reopened; the 1969 preschooler’s DNA sample was there as part of an active murder investigation, and Leiterman’s DNA sample was there because he had recently been arrested for forging a prescription. To ensure the information witnesses provide is accurate, the people working on a criminal case must carefully examine how witnesses were questioned, as well as the language that law … In a particularly famous case, a man named Ronald Cotton was identified by a rape victim, Jennifer Thompson, as her rapist, and was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison study. Current procedures for collecting and assessing evidence from eyewitnesses are often not designed to minimize contamination.This problem does not apply to other kinds of forensic evidence. But factoring in the confidence of the eyewitness painted a different picture. If the contaminated evidence is relied on to establish guilt versus innocence at a trial, the risk of a wrongful conviction is high. Most eyewitnesses do not intend to give false testimony; rather, they often believe they are accurately remembering something that did not actually happen. As the research on how to better eyewitness testimony continues, we have seen the development of having a double blinded study. Some elements include the following: First, and most important of all, because the test itself contaminates memory, only the initial memory test provides uncontaminated results. The information gained from such research endeavors is important to defense attorneys who have to overcome the hurdle of a positive eyewitness identification of their client. In order for jurors to accurately weigh the value of testimony by its initial confidence, they will need to use sophisticated statistical reasoning, he says. AAAS is a partner of HINARI, AGORA, OARE, CHORUS, CLOCKSS, CrossRef and COUNTER. If confidence really is a strong indicator of accuracy, the researchers reasoned, eyewitnesses who were more certain of their choice should be more likely to identify the suspects who also had abundant corroborating evidence, and eyewitnesses who double-guessed themselves should be less accurate. People are different in the way they recognize and recall events especially through perception. 30 According to … If confidence scores were incorporated into the evidence, not only might fewer innocent people get accused but more guilty people might be convicted, he says. Thompson picked out 22-year-old Ronald Cotton, whose photograph was on file because of a robbery committed in his youth. More recently, I have focused my attention upon how this memory research can be applied to real life situations, in particular to that of an eyewitness testimony situation where a person must use their eyewitness memory to recall an event that has taken place. The results of the study make sense, says Aaron Benjamin, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, because disregarding eyewitness confidence is "dramatically inconsistent with widely accepted views about memory." His aim was to see how reliable eyewitness testimony is in older people. And what can we do about it? In short, eyewitness testimony is not as reliable as people think and needs to be scrutinized vigorously, especially by defense attorneys. Eleven years later, after DNA sequencing technology caught up, samples taken from Thomson's body matched a different man who finally confessed. In much the same way, an eyewitness can be led to falsely remember someone committing a crime that was actually committed by someone else. They were then asked to recollect what they had seen in the video. But there is more to the story. Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? "Our whole point is that you have to pay attention to confidence expressed on the initial identification only." One researcher notes that while most people consider memory to be akin to a video recording that can simply be "replayed," the truth is that memory is more like a puzzle that is constantly being reconstructe… Young adults (17 – 25) and older adults (65 – 85) were shown a video of a theft. The nearly simultaneous analyses of evidence from these three cases in the same crime lab in 2002—a reunion, of sorts, among Mixer, Ruelas and Leiterman, who were ostensibly last together on the night of the murder in 1969—was either an incredible coincidence or the Mixer evidence was contaminated with DNA from both Leiterman and Ruelas. DNA evidence has played a big role in proving the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. They focused on 348 robberies that occurred in 2013 and involved eyewitnesses and a single suspect. It’s been able to definitively prove that eyewitness accounts were incorrect. The ability of a person who witnesses a crime to later pick the perpetrator out of a lineup is atrocious—right? In July 1984, a man broke into the apartment of Jennifer Thompson, a 22-year-old in North Carolina, and threatened her with a knife. When word reached Cotton that the police were looking for him, he walked into a precinct voluntarily. Roughly 13 of cases in which a person was wrongfully ... Convictions overturned by DN Evans were based on on reliable eyewitness testimony. Moreover, one third of those overturned cases rested primarily on the testimony of two or more mistaken eyewitnesses. "I think this is the guy," she told the police after several minutes of hesitation. Instead, he raped her and fled. Jury’s place great reliance on eyewitness testimony and ignore the dangers of false memories (Engelhardt, n. d). Faulty eyewitness testimony has been implicated in at least 75% of DNA exoneration cases—more than any other cause ( Garrett, 2011 ). Hundreds of innocent people have been exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States since the 1990s, and eyewitness misidentification was the root cause in 70% of the cases. Eyewitness misidentifications are known to have played a role in 70 percent of the 349 wrongful convictions that have been overturned based on DNA evidence (so far). She confidently pointed to him as the man who raped her. Problems with Eyewitness Testimony Memory Is Malleable. Imagine if police let unauthorized people have willy-nilly access to a crime scene that is under investigation. Laura Mickes is an academic at Royal Holloway, University of London. The results don't mean that eyewitnesses aren't prone to confident false memories as in the Cotton case, Wixted says, but timing is key. Juries tend to pay close attention to eyewitness testimony and generally find it a reliable source of information. Consider, for example, the case of Gary Leiterman, who, in 2005, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison following a cold case investigation in which his DNA was found on the clothing of a woman named Jane Mixer, who was murdered in 1969. In the first one, the Innocence project examined many cases where they used DNA to exonerate 130 cases. Highly confident eyewitnesses fingered the suspect about 75% of the time, and falsely accused one of the five innocent people less than 20% of the time. First, another DNA profile—one belonging to John Ruelas, who was just a four-year-old preschooler at the time of the murder—was found on a blood spot taken from the victim’s left hand. John is a former contributing correspondent for Science. Second, the police lineup has to be fair (that is, the suspect should not stand out). To see why, let us revisit those DNA exoneration cases that so often involve eyewitness misidentification. To make sure that the police could not unintentionally influence the process, officers who didn’t know who the real suspect was presented photos of six people to the eyewitnesses. Eyewitness testimony can play a big part in criminal court cases. Like eyewitness memory, DNA evidence can be contaminated with the trace of an innocent person. As with DNA evidence, eyewitness evidence needs to be safeguarded against contamination. Most of us are pretty confident about our powers of observation and the reliability of our memory. 29 The Flowers case relied on three key points of evidence: (1) the eyewitness testimony of people who placed Curtis Flowers on the route from his home, to steal a gun, back to his home and then to Tardy to commit the murders and then home again (2) ballistics and (3) jailhouse confessions. So a team led by John Wixted, a psychologist at the University of California (UC), San Diego, ran an experiment with the robbery division of the Houston Police Department in Texas. But many researchers have voiced concerns about whether these laboratory experiments accurately reflect real-world situations. An initial eyewitness identification made with low confidence indicates that even though memory was not contaminated, the ID is untrustworthy (that is, by indicating low confidence, the eyewitness is effectively saying, “There’s a good chance that I’m making an error”). Scientific American is part of Springer Nature, which owns or has commercial relations with thousands of scientific publications (many of them can be found at, 70 percent of the 349 wrongful convictions. Just hours later, a sketch artist worked with Thompson to create an image of the assailant's face. Eyewitnesses are generally unaware that their memory has been altered by post-event information Overall, the eyewitnesses fingered the suspect about one-third of the time, positively identified one of the five innocent people used to fill up the photo lineup one-third of the time, or decided that the perpetrator was not in the lineup at all one-third of the time. Eyewitness testimony may only be credible under these circumstances. In July 1984, a man broke into the apartment of Jennifer Thompson, a 22-year-old in North Carolina, … Eyewitness testimony is a much less reliable form of evidence than we typically think. Psychologists have learned a lot about why such errors happen. What it means is that the malleability of memory can harm reliability. At Holland Law, we aggressively fight the allegations and charges against you with strategic defense. In a trial, the jury is most often persuaded due to the statement(s) of the witnesses. Each case also had a certain amount of corroborating evidence, ranging from weak—the suspect was known to be close to the scene of the crime—to strong—the suspect's shoes matched a footprint at the scene. The study shows that there is real information to be gained from the initial confidence level, says Craig Stark, a psychologist at UC Irvine. The justice system should reconsider how eyewitness testimony is used, he says, because "there's a lot at stake here." He was eventually sentenced to life in prison based on Thompson's testimony. Then the police showed her a series of mug shots of similar-looking men. © 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science. She negotiated, convincing him to not kill her. Now, a new study of robbery investigations suggests that these changes may be doing more harm than good. To do this, proper testing protocols that reduce chances of contamination need to be followed. Just because memory is malleable—for example, it can be contaminated with the trace of an innocent person—does not mean that it has to be unreliable. We have previously written about the problems with relying on eyewitness testimony to solve crimes and secure convictions. 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. Few would doubt that under such conditions, DNA evidence is highly reliable. In this article, take a look at the problems with eyewitness testimony. With surprising ease, for example, participants in a memory experiment can be led to believe that they saw a stop sign when they actually saw a yield sign or that they became lost in a shopping mall as a child when no such experience actually occurred. So, how reliable is eyewitness testimony? © 2020 Scientific American, a Division of Springer Nature America, Inc. Support our award-winning coverage of advances in science & technology. Attorney Randolph Hough has decades of criminal defense experience and will put that experience to work for you to protect your freedom and reputation. Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook. 50 Where a weapon is used during a crime, the weapon is likely to divert the witness's attention to the weapon that the perpetrator is holding and this affects the ability of the witness to concentrate on the details of the crime. However, research into this area has found that eyewitness testimony can be affected by many psychological factors: Anxiety / Stress Juries are told to discount the value of eyewitness testimony and ignore how confident the witnesses may be about whom they think they saw. Even if there is a small detail in an eyewitness testimony that doesn’t match with the testimony of another, the witness account can be helpful as long as there is a lot of physical evidence that backs up the main points that are given. By the time Thompson faced Cotton in court a year later, her doubts were gone. In the majority of cases where DNA evidence has exonerated someone wrongly convicted, the initial eyewitness identifications were made with low confidence, not high confidence, Wixted says. Once an eyewitness gets to court to give testimony, false memories may have become crystallized. Eyewitness testimony relies heavily on the capability of the individual’s to accurately recount the event. While eyewitness testimony is not reliable as your sole means of proof, it can still be helpful as supporting evidence. The Flores case shows how our criminal justice system mishandles eyewitness testimony Eyewitness testimony is reliable, but only under specific circumstances Charles Don … 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. 30, 2020. According to the same theory, 33 years later, in 2002, in an almost inconceivable coincidence, evidence samples from Mixer, Ruelas and Leiterman just happened to be together again in the Michigan State Police Laboratory. 7 hours ago — Emily V. Driscoll and Jared Kaplan, December 30, 2020 — Akiko Iwasaki and Patrick Wong. Cotton was set free. Faulty eyewitness testimony has been implicated in at least 75% of DNA exoneration cases—more than … Although the high accuracy of an initial ID made with high confidence is important to appreciate, the low accuracy of an ID made with low confidence may be even more important to appreciate. Supporting the unreliability of eyewitness testimony are two examples of case exonerations. However, smart criminal defense attorneys know that witness accounts are never 100% reliable. More specifically, the assumption that memory provides an accurate recording of experience, much like … Discover new insights into neuroscience, human behavior and mental health with Scientific American Mind. And indeed, that's exactly how it worked out. ", But many researchers are calling for caution before changing the system. Instead of concluding that DNA evidence is inherently unreliable because of the contamination that apparently occurred in this case, a more reasonable conclusion would be that for DNA testing to be reliable, proper protocols must be followed. Eyewitness testimony can be quite powerful in the eyes of a jury, but it’s important to remember that it’s not one hundred percent reliable. In a particularly famous case, a man named Ronald Cotton was identified by a rape victim, Jennifer Thompson, as her rapist, and was found guilty and sentenced to … Consider the important, and often overlooked, distinction between malleability and reliability. 51 The visual attention given by a witness to a weapon can impair his or her ability to make a reliable … Even though no connection between Leiterman and Ruelas was ever established, the prosecution theorized that all three must have been together after midnight at the murder scene in 1969, with the preschooler bleeding on the victim for some unknown reason while Leiterman killed her. Eyewitness testimony is unreliable because people try to understand a traumatic event by using what they know about the world and fill in gaps, experts said. But he worries that police, jurors, and even judges will misinterpret eyewitness confidence levels. 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