Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Is Eyewitness Testimony Reliable?

By Chester Campbell

I’ll soon be heading down to watch the 10 o’clock news for the latest word on murders and mayhem in the community. It’s a wonder that people still enjoy reading about our fictional bad guys with all the real ones staring at us nightly from the TV. I suppose it’s the hope that unlike the cases they see paraded across the screen, our mysteries will end with satisfying conclusions and villains behind bars or beneath gravestones.

One departure from the usual fare was Sunday night’s “60 Minutes” segment about an innocent man who was convicted largely by unreliable eyewitness testimony. I’ve heard and read opinions from investigators about the faulty recollections of witnesses to crimes, but I hadn’t come across professional studies on the subject.

The TV show interviewed psychologists and criminologists who talked about research that shows how people’s memories are affected by the way photographs are displayed and lineups presented.

The story involved a young white woman who was raped at age twenty-two. She had concentrated on the black rapist’s features so she would remember him afterward. She worked with detectives to create his likeness. When they showed her mug shots of six men who’d been arrested, she picked out one as the guilty party. When they brought the same man out in a lineup, she identified him again.

Largely on her testimony, the man was convicted and spent a dozen years in prison before a law professor got his DNA tested against evidence from the case. It showed him innocent. The DNA was matched to another man with similar features who had already been convicted of another rape.

Now the woman and the man she wrongly accused travel around the country speaking to lawyers and law enforcement personnel, asking them to use better techniques in presenting photographs and lineups. The psychologists said the victim’s incorrect memory was reinforced by the way the evidence was presented.

In The Marathon Murders, I had my PI Greg McKenzie caution his wife, “Don’t forget, eyewitness accounts can be notoriously unreliable.”

Have you run across any fictional cases where eyewitness testimony was crucial to solving a murder? Best to use caution in this area.

Read more about The Marathon Murders.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Very good point, Chester. Ten people witnessing a robbery or other crime will always describe it differently as well as the participants. Pretty frightening when you consider how many innocent people have been convicted on eye witness accounts.

Ben Small said...

As a veteran trial lawyer, I can vouch for the inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony. And eyewitness testimony varies over time as the mind re-thinks what was seen and heard. That's why lawyers are always looking for documents. Documents don't lie; the contents may be wrong, but the document won't change.

As usual, you've made this powerfully clear in your article today. Good job, Chester.

Beth Terrell said...

Coincidentally, our Sisters in Crime guest speaker, Assistant DA Bobby Hibbett, talked about that a little bit on Tuesday night, not long after Chester wrote about the issue. He told us about a woman who identified her rapist, who spent about 18 months in jail waiting for his "speedy trial." Then DNA evidence proved him innocent. They think his brother was really the guilty party, but she just wanted to move past the whole thing, so she moved away. Without her, they didn't have enough to convict the brother.

Great article, Chester.

Vincit said...

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has made a career out of demonstrating just how unreliable eye-witness testimony can be. "How fast was the car going when it crashed/impacted/stopped?" Which word the questioner chooses will have an impact, pun intended, on the witness, who depending on the word, will answer accordingly.

Chester Campbell said...

As you indicated, Vincit, words are powerful critters. Gives the lie to the old saying about sticks and stones, doesn't it?