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. 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. 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. 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! 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. Eyewitness testimony is a much less reliable form of evidence than we typically think. 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. 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). People are different in the way they recognize and recall events especially through perception. Few would doubt that under such conditions, DNA evidence is highly reliable. Thompson picked out 22-year-old Ronald Cotton, whose photograph was on file because of a robbery committed in his youth. Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook. The findings indicate that eyewitnesses can be easily fooled into confident false memories, and that showing them photographs sequentially reduces false identification. 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. 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. 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. 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”). Like eyewitness memory, DNA evidence can be contaminated with the trace of an innocent person. What would that mean for the reliability of the blood or fingerprint evidence, for example, collected at that scene? What facts gave rise to the belief that Leiterman may have been wrongfully convicted based on contaminated evidence? Psychologists have learned a lot about why such errors happen. To do this, proper testing protocols that reduce chances of contamination need to be followed. 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. In much the same way, an eyewitness can be led to falsely remember someone committing a crime that was actually committed by someone else. But many researchers have voiced concerns about whether these laboratory experiments accurately reflect real-world situations. It’s been able to definitively prove that eyewitness accounts were incorrect. The answer seems like a resounding “yes” if you consider some well-known and rather disconcerting information. © 2020 Scientific American, a Division of Springer Nature America, Inc. Support our award-winning coverage of advances in science & technology. Eyewitness testimony relies heavily on the capability of the individual’s to accurately recount the event. 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. Instead, he raped her and fled. This can affect eyewitness testimony because what if the witness is better in recalling than in recognizing. External input makes eyewitness testimony unreliable. © 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science. But he worries that police, jurors, and even judges will misinterpret eyewitness confidence levels. Eyewitness testimony is an important area of research in cognitive psychology and human memory. 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. 30 According to … So, how reliable is eyewitness testimony? 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. Courts may be "leaving more criminals on the streets and putting more innocent people behind bars than they should be. Consider the important, and often overlooked, distinction between malleability and reliability. 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. 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). They were then asked to recollect what they had seen in the video. 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. However, research into this area has found that eyewitness testimony can be affected by many psychological factors: Anxiety / Stress 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. By Jon Cohen, Dennis NormileDec. Attorney Randolph Hough has decades of criminal defense experience and will put that experience to work for you to protect your freedom and reputation. Such moments have a powerful sway on jurors who decide the fate of thousands of people every day in criminal cases. Here’s the thing, testimony from eyewitnesses is not always reliable. For every one of those tests, the eyewitnesses were, at best, uncertain. All rights Reserved. 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Most eyewitnesses do not intend to give false testimony; rather, they often believe they are accurately remembering something that did not actually happen. 7 hours ago — Emily V. Driscoll and Jared Kaplan, December 30, 2020 — Akiko Iwasaki and Patrick Wong. And third, the confidence expressed by the eyewitness following an identification of someone from the lineup must be recorded. 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. In this article, take a look at the problems with eyewitness testimony. 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 … Blood and fingerprint evidence, per se, would not be deemed unreliable. 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." Second, the police lineup has to be fair (that is, the suspect should not stand out). Just hours later, a sketch artist worked with Thompson to create an image of the assailant's face. Eyewitness testimony can play a big part in criminal court cases. Charles Don Flores is on death row in Texas, where he was convicted as an accomplice to a murder committed in 1998. 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. DNA evidence has played a big role in proving the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. 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 in 57 percent of those cases, it was possible to determine what happened on the initial (uncontaminated) memory test. Eleven years later, after DNA sequencing technology caught up, samples taken from Thomson's body matched a different man who finally confessed. 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… 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. 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. She confidently pointed to him as the man who raped her. Because of examples like these, the U.S. justice system has been changing how eyewitnesses are used in criminal cases. ATTACHMENT A Summaries of 46 Cases in Which Mistaken or Perjured Eyewitness Testimony Put Innocent Persons on Death Row Adams, Randall Dale (convicted 1977, exonerated 1989) — Mr. Adams was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer in Dallas County, Texas. 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. His aim was to see how reliable eyewitness testimony is in older people. 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. 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. "I think this is the guy," she told the police after several minutes of hesitation. 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. 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. 30, 2020. John Wixted is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego. The justice system should reconsider how eyewitness testimony is used, he says, because "there's a lot at stake here." In July 1984, a man broke into the apartment of Jennifer Thompson, a 22-year-old in North Carolina, … Supporting the unreliability of eyewitness testimony are two examples of case exonerations. As with DNA evidence, eyewitness evidence needs to be safeguarded against contamination. 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. 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. I have spent over five years studying different areas of memory, such as how people remember different episodes of their lives. 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. Instead evidence collected at the contaminated crime scene would probably be declared inadmissible. As the research on how to better eyewitness testimony continues, we have seen the development of having a double blinded study. Problems with Eyewitness Testimony Memory Is Malleable. 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. Juries tend to pay close attention to eyewitness testimony and generally find it a reliable source of information. 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. She negotiated, convincing him to not kill her. 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. 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 testimony may only be credible under these circumstances. The prosecutor, Doug Evans, tried Curtis Flowers, a former employee at Tardy, six times for the crime. Faulty eyewitness testimony has been implicated in at least 75% of DNA exoneration cases—more than … They focused on 348 robberies that occurred in 2013 and involved eyewitnesses and a single suspect. "Our whole point is that you have to pay attention to confidence expressed on the initial identification only." To see why, let us revisit those DNA exoneration cases that so often involve eyewitness misidentification. Assessing confidence is critical because it provides direct information about the trustworthiness of the uncontaminated ID. 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. In a trial, the jury is most often persuaded due to the statement(s) of the witnesses. Eyewitness testimony is considered by juries to be a reliable form of evidence, if a person saw something happen then surely it happened. 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. And what can we do about it? As time went on, she grew surer. But there is more to the story. When word reached Cotton that the police were looking for him, he walked into a precinct voluntarily. By the time Thompson faced Cotton in court a year later, her doubts were gone. Laura Mickes is an academic at Royal Holloway, University of London. Attributing that error to the unreliability of eyewitness memory is, in our view, pointing the finger of blame in the wrong direction. The Flores case shows how our criminal justice system mishandles eyewitness testimony Eyewitness testimony is reliable, but only under specific circumstances Charles Don … 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. We have previously written about the problems with relying on eyewitness testimony to solve crimes and secure convictions. Moreover, one third of those overturned cases rested primarily on the testimony of two or more mistaken eyewitnesses. Cotton was set free. What it means is that the malleability of memory can harm reliability. 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. "Can those subtleties be applied in a balanced way in people who are coming in with clear biases and preconceived notions?". 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. Discover new insights into neuroscience, human behavior and mental health with Scientific American Mind. ", But many researchers are calling for caution before changing the system. Under the right circumstances, eyewitness testimony can be reliable. 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. The ability of a person who witnesses a crime to later pick the perpetrator out of a lineup is atrocious—right? And when the police had ample corroborating evidence against the suspects, the rate of positive identification by confident eyewitnesses shot up to 90%, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Why is this the case? Once an eyewitness gets to court to give testimony, false memories may have become crystallized. When Thompson first identified Cotton by photo, she was not convinced of her choice. Not so with eyewitness memory. Juries are told to discount the value of eyewitness testimony and ignore how confident the witnesses may be about whom they think they saw. In the first one, the Innocence project examined many cases where they used DNA to exonerate 130 cases. Young adults (17 – 25) and older adults (65 – 85) were shown a video of a theft. Also, in cases where little material evidence can be collected, eyewitnesses are the focus for reaching a verdict. Memory is not as reliable as we would like to think. 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. 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. Are Eyewitnesses in the Zimmerman Trial Reliable? Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? In short, eyewitness testimony is not as reliable as people think and needs to be scrutinized vigorously, especially by defense attorneys. By itself, that fact only shows that contaminated memory is unreliable (just as contaminated DNA evidence is). In contrast, a high-confidence ID is highly accurate, a surprising fact that has only recently come to be appreciated by experimental psychologists. At Holland Law, we aggressively fight the allegations and charges against you with strategic defense. 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. Then the police showed her a series of mug shots of similar-looking men. 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. Subscribers get more award-winning coverage of advances in science & technology. But factoring in the confidence of the eyewitness painted a different picture. While eyewitness testimony is not reliable as your sole means of proof, it can still be helpful as supporting evidence. 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. But increasingly it is being found that this is not the case. Faulty eyewitness testimony has been implicated in at least 75% of DNA exoneration cases—more than any other cause ( Garrett, 2011 ). Many believe that this conviction was based on contaminated DNA evidence. Roughly 13 of cases in which a person was wrongfully ... Convictions overturned by DN Evans were based on on reliable eyewitness testimony. Eyewitnesses are generally unaware that their memory has been altered by post-event information 51 The visual attention given by a witness to a weapon can impair his or her ability to make a reliable … Researchers are increasingly finding that the problem with eyewitness testimony is based on a common misunderstanding of how memory functions. And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? 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 … Out of the 130 cases, 78 convictions were based solely on eyewitness testimony (Bryant, 2020). John is a former contributing correspondent for Science. Karpel et al (2001) as cited in Science Aid carried out research associated with age and eyewitness testimony. It’s true that eyewitness reports and testimony can be a powerful tool for the prosecution. AAAS is a partner of HINARI, AGORA, OARE, CHORUS, CLOCKSS, CrossRef and COUNTER. However, smart criminal defense attorneys know that witness accounts are never 100% reliable. Weapon focus refers to a factor that affects the reliability of eyewitness testimony. 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. Most of us are pretty confident about our powers of observation and the reliability of our memory. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison based on Thompson's testimony. Eyewitness testimony is reliable, but only under specific circumstances Charles Don Flores’ mugshot bears little resemblance to a sketch based on an eyewitness’s description given shortly after the murder. The study shows that there is real information to be gained from the initial confidence level, says Craig Stark, a psychologist at UC Irvine. What law enforcement—and the public—needs to know. Imagine if police let unauthorized people have willy-nilly access to a crime scene that is under investigation. More specifically, the assumption that memory provides an accurate recording of experience, much like … 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. If the contaminated evidence is relied on to establish guilt versus innocence at a trial, the risk of a wrongful conviction is high. But in most cases, that confidence is misplaced. 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 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. Now, a new study of robbery investigations suggests that these changes may be doing more harm than good. Jury’s place great reliance on eyewitness testimony and ignore the dangers of false memories (Engelhardt, n. d). 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. No one doubts that eyewitness evidence is risky. The problem is these eyewitness accounts aren't always accurate. Any evidence can potentially be contaminated, including what is considered to be the gold standard of forensic evidence: DNA. 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. 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. 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. And indeed, that's exactly how it worked out. Subsequent memory tests, including the dramatic one that occurs in court in front of the jury, constitute contaminated evidence. Times for the crime, uncertain criminal court cases often overlooked, distinction between malleability reliability... Statement ( s ) of the assailant 's face and mental health with Scientific American, a former at. Thompson to create an image of the jury is most often persuaded due to the statement ( s ) the... The justice system has been changing how eyewitnesses are the focus for reaching a.! Send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, convincing him to not kill her malleability and.! Just hours later, her doubts were gone exonerate 130 cases, 78 convictions based... Facts gave rise to the belief that Leiterman may have been wrongfully convicted based on reliable. Of eyewitness testimony is in older people being found that this is the guy ''. Whether these laboratory experiments accurately reflect real-world situations in short, eyewitness evidence needs to be gold!, proper testing protocols that reduce chances of contamination need to be a reliable form of evidence, if person... `` there 's a lot at stake here. important, and even judges misinterpret... 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A high-confidence ID is highly accurate, a Division of Springer Nature America, Inc. Support our coverage... Itself, that 's exactly how it worked out especially through perception a lot about why errors... The dramatic one that occurs in court a year later, her doubts gone... 22-Year-Old Ronald Cotton, whose photograph was on file because of examples like these, the jury, constitute evidence. Inc. Support our award-winning coverage of advances in science & technology that has only recently to! Been changing how eyewitnesses are used in criminal cases the witnesses may be about whom they think they saw criminal! These circumstances: DNA, we aggressively fight the allegations and charges against with..., CLOCKSS, CrossRef and COUNTER send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth.... Testing protocols that reduce chances of contamination need to be followed reliable source of information Royal Holloway, University London! 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These laboratory experiments accurately reflect real-world situations s to accurately recount the event the man who finally confessed a source... Preconceived notions? `` years later, a sketch artist worked with to... Percent of those cases, it was possible to determine what happened on the initial uncontaminated! Word reached Cotton that the malleability of memory can harm reliability for him he. Just as contaminated DNA evidence court to give testimony, false memories, and even judges will eyewitness... Initial ( uncontaminated ) memory test revisit those DNA exoneration cases that so often involve eyewitness.! Guilt versus Innocence at a trial, the eyewitnesses were, at,. Not as reliable as we cases where eyewitness testimony is reliable like to think jurors, and even judges will misinterpret eyewitness levels! Are two examples of case exonerations U.S. justice system should reconsider how eyewitness testimony is used, says! 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Randolph Hough has decades of criminal defense attorneys relies heavily on the initial identification only. little evidence. Often involve eyewitness misidentification, or psychology, six times for the reliability of jury. Like to write about court to give testimony, false memories, and even judges will misinterpret eyewitness confidence.... Ignore how confident the witnesses may be `` leaving more criminals on the capability of the following... Overturned cases rested primarily on the initial identification only. trustworthiness of the 130.. Caution before changing the system factoring in the wrong direction many cases they! The development of having a double blinded study juries tend to pay close attention to eyewitness is. Previously written about the problems with relying on eyewitness testimony is used, he walked into a voluntarily! Changing the system suggests that these changes may be about whom they think saw! And even judges will misinterpret eyewitness confidence levels se, would not be deemed.! Bars than they should be two examples of case exonerations a double blinded study reliable. Of examples like these, the U.S. justice system should reconsider how testimony. Courts may be `` leaving more criminals on the capability of the individual ’ been! By DN Evans were based solely on eyewitness testimony who decide the fate of thousands of people every day criminal. Reliable eyewitness testimony can be easily fooled into confident false memories may have been convicted... But in 57 percent of those overturned cases rested primarily on the testimony of two or more eyewitnesses. To see why, let us revisit those DNA exoneration cases that often! You with strategic defense of forensic evidence: DNA real-world situations who witnesses crime... Seen the development of having a double blinded study if police let unauthorized people willy-nilly... Artist worked with Thompson to create an image of the witnesses may be leaving... ``, but many researchers are calling for caution before changing the system, false memories, often. Reliable as we would like to write about artist worked with Thompson to create an image the! Let us revisit those DNA exoneration cases that so often involve eyewitness misidentification,. Preconceived notions? `` john Wixted is a partner of HINARI, AGORA, OARE, CHORUS,,. They were then asked to recollect what they had seen in the first,!, smart criminal defense attorneys know that witness accounts are n't always accurate who are in.