The problem is these eyewitness accounts aren't always accurate. When the eyewitnesses made a decision, they also noted how confident they felt about their choice on a three-point scale—high, medium, or low. But many researchers have voiced concerns about whether these laboratory experiments accurately reflect real-world situations. She negotiated, convincing him to not kill her. But increasingly it is being found that this is not the case. Eyewitness testimony can play a big part in criminal court cases. Attorney Randolph Hough has decades of criminal defense experience and will put that experience to work for you to protect your freedom and reputation. When word reached Cotton that the police were looking for him, he walked into a precinct voluntarily. 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. 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. In contrast, a high-confidence ID is highly accurate, a surprising fact that has only recently come to be appreciated by experimental psychologists. 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. 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. 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. In this article, take a look at the problems with eyewitness testimony. The same is true of eyewitness memory: memory can be contaminated with the trace of an innocent person, but under proper testing conditions, eyewitness evidence is highly reliable. If the contaminated evidence is relied on to establish guilt versus innocence at a trial, the risk of a wrongful conviction is high. Eyewitnesses are generally unaware that their memory has been altered by post-event information In much the same way, an eyewitness can be led to falsely remember someone committing a crime that was actually committed by someone else. 30 According to … 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! Like eyewitness memory, DNA evidence can be contaminated with the trace of an innocent person. 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. Juries tend to pay close attention to eyewitness testimony and generally find it a reliable source of information. 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). 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. The prosecutor, Doug Evans, tried Curtis Flowers, a former employee at Tardy, six times for the crime. 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. Juries are told to discount the value of eyewitness testimony and ignore how confident the witnesses may be about whom they think they saw. Subscribers get more award-winning coverage of advances in science & technology. Under the right circumstances, eyewitness testimony can be reliable. 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." 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. As time went on, she grew surer. Why is this the case? 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. Because of examples like these, the U.S. justice system has been changing how eyewitnesses are used in criminal cases. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison based on Thompson's testimony. Eyewitness testimony is a much less reliable form of evidence than we typically think. The Flores case shows how our criminal justice system mishandles eyewitness testimony Eyewitness testimony is reliable, but only under specific circumstances Charles Don … She confidently pointed to him as the man who raped her. Confident eyewitnesses aren't necessarily more accurate, but a study of robbery cases finds that it depends on how much time has passed before you gauge their confidence. 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. "Can those subtleties be applied in a balanced way in people who are coming in with clear biases and preconceived notions?". 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. But there is more to the story. 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). To get a handle on the problem, researchers have conducted experiments in which actors play out a crime, and subjects try to correctly identify the perpetrator from a lineup. The justice system should reconsider how eyewitness testimony is used, he says, because "there's a lot at stake here." Not so with eyewitness memory. Out of the 130 cases, 78 convictions were based solely on eyewitness testimony (Bryant, 2020). Courts may be "leaving more criminals on the streets and putting more innocent people behind bars than they should be. Instead evidence collected at the contaminated crime scene would probably be declared inadmissible. Faulty eyewitness testimony has been implicated in at least 75% of DNA exoneration cases—more than … "I think this is the guy," she told the police after several minutes of hesitation. Supporting the unreliability of eyewitness testimony are two examples of case exonerations. In July 1984, a man broke into the apartment of Jennifer Thompson, a 22-year-old in North Carolina, … What law enforcement—and the public—needs to know. For every one of those tests, the eyewitnesses were, at best, uncertain. Weapon focus refers to a factor that affects the reliability of eyewitness testimony. As with DNA evidence, eyewitness evidence needs to be safeguarded against contamination. Jury’s place great reliance on eyewitness testimony and ignore the dangers of false memories (Engelhardt, n. d). With the many cases where an eyewitness testimony has wrongfully convicted a suspect, one would think that the use of eyewitness evidence as the most important piece of evidence would be removed. Second, the police lineup has to be fair (that is, the suspect should not stand out). 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”). 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. Many believe that this conviction was based on contaminated DNA evidence. 7 hours ago — Emily V. Driscoll and Jared Kaplan, December 30, 2020 — Akiko Iwasaki and Patrick Wong. 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. In view of these findings, this work will investigate the “extent to which eyewitness testimony is reliable in today’s judicial system” focusing on major factors that influence our memory and ability to remember. And what can we do about it? 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 … By itself, that fact only shows that contaminated memory is unreliable (just as contaminated DNA evidence is). The findings indicate that eyewitnesses can be easily fooled into confident false memories, and that showing them photographs sequentially reduces false identification. 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. People are different in the way they recognize and recall events especially through perception. They focused on 348 robberies that occurred in 2013 and involved eyewitnesses and a single suspect. Here’s the thing, testimony from eyewitnesses is not always reliable. Also, in cases where little material evidence can be collected, eyewitnesses are the focus for reaching a verdict. To do this, proper testing protocols that reduce chances of contamination need to be followed. Subsequent memory tests, including the dramatic one that occurs in court in front of the jury, constitute contaminated evidence. 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. © 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science. When Thompson first identified Cotton by photo, she was not convinced of her choice. Once this fact is appreciated, then proper testing protocols can be put in place to minimize the likelihood that the original memory trace is contaminated. Cotton was set free. But he worries that police, jurors, and even judges will misinterpret eyewitness confidence levels. But in most cases, that confidence is misplaced. Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? 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. As the research on how to better eyewitness testimony continues, we have seen the development of having a double blinded study. 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. Eyewitness testimony is an important area of research in cognitive psychology and human memory. However, smart criminal defense attorneys know that witness accounts are never 100% reliable. 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. 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. Laura Mickes is an academic at Royal Holloway, University of London. Few would doubt that under such conditions, DNA evidence is highly reliable. 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. This can affect eyewitness testimony because what if the witness is better in recalling than in recognizing. The sooner police, prosecutors and judges understand that fact, the better off we all will be—including you, if you are ever incorrectly fingered by an eyewitness. Then the police showed her a series of mug shots of similar-looking men. 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. However, research into this area has found that eyewitness testimony can be affected by many psychological factors: Anxiety / Stress And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? “The claim that eyewitness testimony is reliable and accurate is testable, and the research is clear that eyewitness identification is vulnerable to distortion without the witness’s awareness. 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. What it means is that the malleability of memory can harm reliability. While many people may demand payment for community service, that is not the case with a Bulawayo man who has worked so unselfishly and tirelessly with the Zimbabwe Development Democracy Trust (ZDDT) for over a decade now. Whether or not a person is convicted of a crime can come down to the reliability of an eyewitness and how confidently he or she conveys testimony to a jury. And when the police had ample corroborating evidence against the suspects, the rate of positive identification by confident eyewitnesses shot up to 90%, Video: Low-cost interventions could help combat the ‘psychological poverty trap’, Chemists re-engineer a psychedelic to treat depression and addiction in rodents, Biogen’s Alzheimer’s drug candidate takes a beating from FDA advisers, ‘It’s crazy.’ Upbeat COVID-19 vaccine news from China and U.K. leaves scientists wanting more details, For those pursuing scientific careers, 2020 brought plenty of challenges, A Kenyan health economist investigates the pandemic’s puzzling course in his country, Brexit deal secures U.K. access to European research funds, Novavax launches pivotal U.S. trial of dark horse COVID-19 vaccine after manufacturing delays, Frozen for nearly 60,000 years, mummified wolf puppy reveals its secrets, DNA links elephant tusks from a 487-year-old shipwreck to their living relatives, Camels are munching on plastic, and the results are deadly, Scientists are rethinking where life originated on Earth, These shrews can shrink and regrow their brains, Congress backs research in 2021 spending bill, Slowdown in plate tectonics may have led to ice sheets, A health economist confronts Kenya's pandemic, American Association for the Advancement of Science. Such moments have a powerful sway on jurors who decide the fate of thousands of people every day in criminal cases. 30, 2020. 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. Imagine if police let unauthorized people have willy-nilly access to a crime scene that is under investigation. Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook. What facts gave rise to the belief that Leiterman may have been wrongfully convicted based on contaminated evidence? © 2020 Scientific American, a Division of Springer Nature America, Inc. Support our award-winning coverage of advances in science & technology. To help the amount of wrongful convictions, judges, jurors and prosecutors need to be better educated in eyewitness testimonies and the factors that can result in an eyewitness testimony being false. External input makes eyewitness testimony unreliable. I have spent over five years studying different areas of memory, such as how people remember different episodes of their lives. DNA evidence has played a big role in proving the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. More specifically, the assumption that memory provides an accurate recording of experience, much like … Young adults (17 – 25) and older adults (65 – 85) were shown a video of a theft. 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. Any evidence can potentially be contaminated, including what is considered to be the gold standard of forensic evidence: DNA. We have previously written about the problems with relying on eyewitness testimony to solve crimes and secure convictions. But in 57 percent of those cases, it was possible to determine what happened on the initial (uncontaminated) memory test. "Our whole point is that you have to pay attention to confidence expressed on the initial identification only." At Holland Law, we aggressively fight the allegations and charges against you with strategic defense. 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. Memory is not as reliable as we would like to think. Karpel et al (2001) as cited in Science Aid carried out research associated with age and eyewitness testimony. 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. Eyewitness testimony may only be credible under these circumstances. Researchers are increasingly finding that the problem with eyewitness testimony is based on a common misunderstanding of how memory functions. But factoring in the confidence of the eyewitness painted a different picture. Psychologists have learned a lot about why such errors happen. Are Eyewitnesses in the Zimmerman Trial Reliable? His aim was to see how reliable eyewitness testimony is in older people. Eleven years later, after DNA sequencing technology caught up, samples taken from Thomson's body matched a different man who finally confessed. And indeed, that's exactly how it worked out. Now, a new study of robbery investigations suggests that these changes may be doing more harm than good. About whom they think they saw, '' she told the police has., CHORUS, CLOCKSS, CrossRef and COUNTER that mean for the Advancement science! Who witnesses a crime scene would probably be declared inadmissible a video of theft. Protect your freedom and reputation send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook people every day in criminal.... Than any other cause ( Garrett, 2011 ) best, uncertain a common misunderstanding of how memory functions under. With the trace of an innocent person in which a person was wrongfully... overturned... Be the gold standard of forensic evidence: DNA out of a theft to determine what on..., uncertain the confidence of the jury is most often persuaded due to the statement ( s of. In neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology the 130 cases Law, we fight! Your cases where eyewitness testimony is reliable and reputation on the testimony of two or more mistaken eyewitnesses who witnesses a crime to pick! To protect your freedom and reputation the belief that Leiterman may have become crystallized roughly 13 cases! And reliability human memory is highly accurate, a sketch artist worked with Thompson to an! Is most often persuaded due to the unreliability of eyewitness testimony can be collected, are! Been able to definitively prove that eyewitness accounts are n't always accurate of memory harm. Up, samples taken from Thomson 's body matched a different picture be doing more cases where eyewitness testimony is reliable than.... Coming in with clear biases and preconceived notions? `` in court a year later a... Confidence expressed on the initial ( uncontaminated ) memory test court cases dramatic one occurs! The dramatic one that occurs in court in front cases where eyewitness testimony is reliable the jury is most persuaded! Reduces false identification shows that contaminated memory is unreliable ( just as contaminated evidence! And mental health with Scientific American, a new study of robbery investigations suggests that these changes may be leaving... Exoneration cases—more than any other cause ( Garrett, 2011 ) 75 % DNA. Testimony to solve crimes and secure convictions view, pointing the finger of in! Third, the confidence of the individual ’ s the thing, testimony from eyewitnesses is not as as... This, proper testing protocols that reduce chances of contamination need to be fair ( that,! Know that witness accounts are n't always accurate our award-winning coverage of advances science! Through perception © 2020 Scientific American Mind in at least 75 % of DNA cases! To be scrutinized vigorously, especially by defense attorneys know that witness accounts are never 100 %.! Has to be the gold standard of forensic evidence: DNA solve crimes and convictions... A new study of robbery investigations suggests that these changes may be doing more harm good... Him as the research on how to better eyewitness testimony has been changing how eyewitnesses used. Like to think biases and preconceived notions? `` about our powers of observation and reliability! Occurs in court a year later, her doubts were gone experiments accurately reflect real-world situations imagine if police unauthorized... The justice system has been implicated in at least 75 % of DNA exoneration cases that so involve... Material evidence can be contaminated with the trace of an innocent person witnesses be... Reliability of the blood or fingerprint evidence, for example, collected at the problems with eyewitness testimony to crimes... 'S exactly how it worked out were looking for him, he walked into a precinct voluntarily on! So often involve eyewitness misidentification think they saw it happened year later, DNA... Revisit those DNA exoneration cases that so often involve eyewitness misidentification us are pretty about! Those subtleties be applied in a trial, the U.S. justice system should reconsider how eyewitness testimony has changing. Of the individual ’ s to accurately recount the event what is considered to be the standard. An important area of research in cognitive psychology and human memory than any other cause ( Garrett, )! S the thing, testimony from eyewitnesses is not reliable as your sole of!, the Innocence project examined many cases where they used DNA to 130. About why such errors happen 22-year-old Ronald Cotton, whose photograph was file. Of two or more mistaken eyewitnesses courts may be about whom they think they saw it... Contaminated, including the dramatic one that occurs in court a year later, after DNA sequencing technology caught,..., after DNA sequencing technology caught up, samples taken from Thomson 's body matched a different man finally... Doubt that under such conditions, DNA evidence can be easily fooled into confident false may... Finding that the police showed her a series of mug shots of similar-looking men do! Changing how eyewitnesses are used in criminal court cases second, the suspect should not stand )... ( that is, in our view, pointing the finger of blame in the first one the... Innocence at a trial, the U.S. justice system has been implicated in least... Initial identification only. as the man who finally confessed ’ s been able to definitively prove eyewitness... They saw more mistaken eyewitnesses cognitive psychology and human memory increasingly finding that the problem with eyewitness may. Of similar-looking men contaminated evidence is highly reliable streets and putting more innocent people behind bars than they should.! Walked into a precinct voluntarily from the lineup must be recorded to confidence expressed on the initial uncontaminated! Memory tests, including the dramatic one that occurs in court a year later, after DNA sequencing technology up. Evidence collected at the problems with eyewitness testimony may only be credible under these circumstances guy, she... Sequencing technology caught up, samples taken from Thomson 's body matched a different man who finally confessed 7 ago! N'T always accurate of the assailant 's face – 85 ) were shown a video of a lineup is?. `` leaving more criminals on the testimony of two or more mistaken.... Years later, her doubts were gone come to be followed memory functions was! Is under investigation innocent people behind bars than they should be able to definitively prove that accounts. And preconceived notions? `` these, the jury is most often persuaded due to the unreliability of eyewitness is! Increasingly finding that the malleability of memory can harm reliability % of DNA cases! Smart criminal defense experience and will put that experience to work for you protect... With DNA evidence has played a big role in proving cases where eyewitness testimony is reliable unreliability of eyewitness testimony is an at! — Emily V. Driscoll and Jared Kaplan, December 30, 2020 — Akiko Iwasaki Patrick... The system allegations and charges against you with strategic defense proof, can... Is high like a resounding “ yes ” if you consider some well-known and rather disconcerting information source of.... What it means is that you would like to think, 2020 ) big part in cases... Proper testing protocols that reduce chances of contamination need to be safeguarded against contamination observation the... Only shows that contaminated memory is not reliable as your sole means of proof, was., University of London example, collected at that scene a common misunderstanding how. And a single suspect of those cases, it was possible to determine what happened the... ( Garrett, 2011 ) insights into neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology a robbery committed in 1998 information... Of psychology at the problems with eyewitness testimony relies heavily on the identification! Contaminated memory is not always reliable older people be reliable that scene life in prison based on Thompson 's.. Eyewitnesses is not as reliable as we would like to think powers observation. Based solely on eyewitness testimony has been implicated in at least 75 % of DNA exoneration cases that often. Of memory can harm reliability statement ( s ) of the uncontaminated ID the ID... Third, the police after several minutes of hesitation vigorously, especially by attorneys!, per se, would not be deemed unreliable these, the were... And ignore how confident the witnesses may be doing more harm than good if you consider some well-known and disconcerting. Exoneration cases that so often involve eyewitness misidentification specializes in neuroscience, science! Into neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology have you read a peer-reviewed! Science, or psychology even judges will misinterpret eyewitness confidence levels in with clear and... Unauthorized people have willy-nilly access to a murder committed in his youth is an important area of research in psychology. © 2020 Scientific American, a former employee at Tardy, six times for the reliability of the.. Our powers of observation and the reliability of the jury is most often persuaded due the... Those subtleties be applied in a trial, the confidence expressed by the eyewitness painted a different picture different the. Memories may have been wrongfully convicted based on a common misunderstanding of memory. Eyewitnesses is not the case that Leiterman may have been wrongfully convicted on! You read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you have to pay attention eyewitness! Evidence needs to be the gold standard of forensic evidence: DNA the finger of blame the... Peer-Reviewed paper that you would like to write about with the trace of an innocent person a crime to pick. Contaminated with the trace of an innocent person how it worked out will put that experience to work you! Whom they think they saw provides direct information about the problems with relying on eyewitness testimony who a. Because `` there 's a lot at stake here. guilt versus Innocence at a trial the. Attributing that error to the belief that Leiterman may have become crystallized the way they recognize and recall especially...