Home > Attention, Memory > The Faulty Eyewitness Testimony–I’m sure I saw him!

The Faulty Eyewitness Testimony–I’m sure I saw him!

“Most cases don’t turn on DNA evidence. Most turn on eyewitness testimony and admissions by defendants.”

—-District Attorney General of U.S.—Barry P. Staubus

It’s often said that seeing is believing, but many times our memories can be  misleading or even completely inaccurate. It might be no big deal in our daily life to mistakenly remember something, but in a courtroom, it could possibly send an innocent man to prison or even to the electric chair. One of the most frequently used and widely accepted pieces of evidence in today’s trials is eyewitness testimony, in which a witness is asked to pick the potential suspect out of a lineup, or to describe the characteristics of the perpetrator so that the police could run it through the data base and come up with an ID. However, as our memories could potentially be inaccurate, eyewitness testimonies are not always 100 percent true. In a significant number of criminal trials, the identification could be completely wrong and because the witness is “very confident” about the identification, an innocent man would wind up in jail.

A funny but sad case in California can help us understand how eyewitness testimonies can be proved wrong in courtrooms. In this trial, a lawyer was trying to use inaccurate eyewitness testimony to get his client out of a traffic violation. In this trial, the defendant was accused of a traffic violation and the police officer that ticketed him was summoned to the court to confront the driver. Surprisingly, when the judge called the driver to the defendant seat, the lawyer instead approached to the bench and pretended to be the defendant. The judge then assumed that he (the lawyer) was the defendant and started the trial. The police officer was brought up to the stand and the lawyer, who pretended to be the defendant, asked the officer a bunch of questions such as “Am I the driver?” “What was I wearing?”… As the police officer confidently testified that he saw the “defendant” that night violating the traffic rule and ticketed him, the lawyer revealed his true identity and used it as evidence to show how inaccurate the officer’s testimony could be–how could he be certain of what the driver had done if he couldn’t even remember which person is the driver! Even though the ploy was brilliant and creative, the lawyer lost his license to practice law in CA because lawyers shouldn’t be misleading the court. His approach might have been not appropriate, but this trial case definitely showed us that eyewitness testimonies could be faulty.

Psychologists have done quite a number of studies on the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies. There are powerful evidences showing that eyewitness identifications are sometimes far less reliable than many people may think. From the report of Gary L. Wells and Elizabeth A. Olsen, we know that there are several key factors for inaccurate eyewitness testimony to:

  • Own Race Bias: This bias showed that people are much better at recognizing the faces of their own racial or ethnic group members than people from a different race. Based on this bias, eyewitnesses could have mistakenly accused an innocent man for committing a crime, because in the eyes of a different racial group–they all look alike.
  • Age: Age here factors in a similar way as race. In Wells and Olsen’s study they found out that young and elder eyewitnesses make more mistaken identities than adults in a lineup identification does not contain an actual culprit-just suspects and innocent “filler” individuals. However, if the lineup does contain the culprit, age doesn’t factor as much.
  • Attractiveness: This is an interesting but critical factor since in most cases, people pay more attention to attractive people and thus can form clearer memories of the really attractive or really unattractive faces instead of plain or average faces.
  • Disguises: The tests showed that simple disguises (covering the hair, wearing sunglasses, wearing a wig, etc.) could make it significantly harder to recognize a face correctly for eyewitnesses.
  • Abstract Judgments: Most of the time, we humans make judgments. But in a crime scene, if you see a face and think, “Well, he looks like a mean person,” which is making an abstract judgment, it’s more likely that you are going to recall this face in process of identifying the suspects than if you thought, “He has a red hair,” which is merely recognizing a pattern.
  • Weapons: Multiple other studies had identified a so-called “weapon-focus effect”, which is, if you were held at gunpoint, you would probably remember nothing but the muzzle. This effect distracts the witness from attending to the culprit’s face and also triggers fear and stress that can weaken memory.

Knowing how much eyewitness testimony can fail us and can result wrongful charges, there are more and more efforts put in our society today try to put a stop to this– Since 1992, the Innocence Project has accomplished to exonerate over 246 prisoners nationwide by presenting the DNA evidence to appeal and overrule the eyewitness testimonies. The jury and the judge should consider how much eyewitness testimony should weigh in court trials. May there be less and less wrongfully charged men and women in prison in the future!

 

There are some other really interesting articles about the accuracy of  eyewitness testimonies on this blog:

http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2013/04/30/innocent-criminal-the-science-behind-inaccurate-eye-witness-testimony/

http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2013/04/30/remembering-the-deceitful-in-one-glance/

 

 

 

Sources:

The details of the case in California are drawn from the publicly posted opinion in Mr. Christianson’s disciplinary hearing and from the final decision in his disciplinary case. The information was available at http://members.calbar.ca.gov/search/member_detail.aspx?x=54993.

Wells, A. Gary., and Olsen, A. Elizabeth. Eyewitness Testimony (Annual Review of Psychology, 2003, Volume 54, pp. 277-295)

Chabris, Christopher F., and Daniel J. Simons. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. New York: Crown, 2010.

  1. March 19th, 2014 at 20:12 | #1

    I thought this was a really interesting article and thought it was very well written. This has become such a prevalent topic since the introduction of DNA testing. Now that we are able to test people more accurately than placing the verdict on an alleged eyewitness brings to light how inaccurate the process really is. I was just reading in the book “Subliminal” by Leonard Mlodinow about this exact issue. An Elon student was raped and confidently identified the man in a set of pictures as well as a line up, but he was not actually the correct perpetrator. When he was placed in jail, he overheard another inmate in the kitchen boasting of his spree of rapes, and it turned out that he looked vary similar to the man who was wrongly convicted. Once DNA testing was available the man was exonerated. The book was saying that 20-25% of the time eyewitness accounts are known by police to be incorrect. With this percentage and the strong evidence against the accuracy of eyewitness accounts provided by the phenomenons you have provided makes it very surprising that nothing has been done about this. We were talking in our cognitive psychology class that even the mere use of a hat that covers your hair can make it very difficult to identify a perpetrator. It seems like people can use all of these things to their advantage to get away with some of the most violent acts. I think the own race and even own age bias shed some very interesting light on the issue. If people are more easily able to identify people of their own age or race but feel that everyone else looks the same, how can we be so sure that they are going to be able to choose the right person no matter how confident they feel their answer is. I know there have also been some really interesting studies done on the effects of really traumatizing events and eyewitness memory that could account for the inability to make pick out the perpetrator in a lineup. Regardless of the justice systems openness to chance, I think that this is something that needs to be seriously looked at because of the volume of evidence against the validity of eyewitness testimony.

  2. December 1st, 2013 at 21:44 | #2

    The more I read about eyewitness testimony, the more concerning it becomes. The Wells and Olsen report really illuminates just how many factors can interfere with accurate eyewitness reports, and juries still tend to give them a frightening amount of weight. The abstract judgement effect was very interesting – it reminds me of the effect of deep semantic processing for word lists. I guess we rarely make those types of abstract judgements of faces that we see unless we’re prompted to. There are a number of studies that have looked into ways to improve eye-witness testimony – I know I was just reading another blog post about providing children with a blank “wild card” in photo line-ups to help reduce false alarms – but the fact remains that eyewitness testimony is far less accurate than many people believe, and that new mindset needs to find a firm foothold in the justice system.

  3. Michelle Wang
    May 19th, 2013 at 11:15 | #3

    Anne Epstein, 2013-05-18 17:47:00 PM
    This idea is really important, and it was cool to follow the links to other related studies. It shows how necessary it is to reevaluate the effectiveness in the justice system. I recently read a study that said jurors are affected by a form of reverse psychology, and when judges tell them strongly to disregard inadmissible testimony jurors are less likely to follow instructions. There seem to be many ways to get around the checks and balances of the justice system (hence the funny/sad story about the lawyer), and it’s important to keep learning about the faults humans have. It’s surprising to hear how effective a disguise can be! I wonder if there are ways to get around these distractors to be more effective witnesses, maybe people should be more judgmental? Either way, important issue people should be more aware of.

    To Anne:

    Thanks you for this comment! The faulty eyewitness testimonies are really causing problems in the justification system. (I watched a lot of criminal minds, too. And this plot of “wrongful identification” pops up a lot 🙂 I think nowadays trials are having the sense that we are all humans and we make mistakes, from time to time. Thus they are more aware of how much weight the testimony should have on the judgment. I came across this study about change blindness and eyewitness testimony days before. It seems like change blindness is a big factor for eyewitness to misremember the face, too. Our minds are doing stuffs that we are not aware of and yet we believe what we see. I hope that trials in the future could rely more on hard evidences like DNA of finger prints. I definitely wish that there would be less and less innocent man sent to jail because somebody remembered things wrong.

  4. May 18th, 2013 at 17:47 | #4

    This idea is really important, and it was cool to follow the links to other related studies. It shows how necessary it is to reevaluate the effectiveness in the justice system. I recently read a study that said jurors are affected by a form of reverse psychology, and when judges tell them strongly to disregard inadmissible testimony jurors are less likely to follow instructions. There seem to be many ways to get around the checks and balances of the justice system (hence the funny/sad story about the lawyer), and it’s important to keep learning about the faults humans have. It’s surprising to hear how effective a disguise can be! I wonder if there are ways to get around these distractors to be more effective witnesses, maybe people should be more judgmental? Either way, important issue people should be more aware of.

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