Eyewitness Testimony and The Expert Testimony Behind Its Validity

Who's Right?
Who's Right?
(link to source)

Why Eyewitness Testimony?

Eyewitness testimony is an interesting topic that affects all of us on an everyday basis. Because of this very basic reason, it is already a salient topic to discuss with regard to its direct application of expertise in memory.

Some other important reasons why the discussion of eyewitness testimony is relevant are:

  • This type of testimony is very influential in the determination of various legal decisions. Within the courtroom setting, eyewitness accounts are the most common and significant testimonies that can potentially serve as the primary forms of evidence against a defendant.
  • Some of the importance given to eyewitness testimony may have to do with the fact that jurors overly believe the testimony of eyewitnesses. This adds to the possible miscarriages of justice that occur.
  • As will be discussed further, there are strong possibilities of erroneous eyewitness identification and memory.

The above reasons are very important, as you can imagine, for the defendant most of all. Let's turn now to discussion about one of the most serious of the problems that occur in eyewitness testimony.

False Misidentification

Alarming statistics state that in 2000, of 62 cases that involved the conviction and imprisonment of individuals for felonies, 52 of them-including 8 of them that had death sentences-involved mistaken eyewitness identifications. These individuals were later acquitted of these charges with the use of DNA testing.

So, how can this problem of false identification be handled differently? One suggestion is to educate law enforcement officials about the proper way to collect eyewitness testimony that will provide the most accurate information. It is possible that law enforcement officials can 'pull' information out of the eyewitnesses that can lead to false identifications (i.e. repeated questions, suggestive questions, poor lineups). With the proper protocol on how to question the eyewitness, there can be increased accuracy in the gathering of information and reduced misidentifications.

What Is Eyewitness Expert Testimony?

According to Leippe (1995), eyewitness expert testimony is "the delivery to a jury by a qualified research psychologist of information about research and theory on eyewitness behavior." In this respect, the "qualified research psychologists" play an important role in determining whether the eyewitness accounts are admissible into court and whether they should receive the stamp of approval from the psychologists, thereby affecting the decisions of the jurors. One argument in favor of expert testimony claims that jurors are very naive about memory capabilities. Because of this, they overbelieve the testimonies of eyewitnesses. Their decisions is especially affected if they receive the support of the psychologists, who offer scientific research to back up the eyewitness accounts. On the other hand, the argument that works against expert testimony states that expert testimony can cause jurors to become very skeptical of eyewitness evidence to the point where they underbelieve the testimonies of the eyewitnesses. This, in itself, can have strong implications on the defendant, especially if the eyewitness accounts are accurate.

In a study done by (Kassin et al., 2001), the experimenters had three goals:

  1. Update the experts' opinions on eyewitness propositions.
  2. Assess the opinions of the experts on new types of situations that were not tested before, such as child witnesses.
  3. Reestimate the level of expert witness activity that occurs in the courtroom.

How Were The Experts Picked?

A very interesting aspect of this study is how the subjects were picked. In order to obtain the experts, a list was generated from sources, such as, the membership rosters of Division 41 of the American Psychological Association; the Society of Applied Research on Memory and Cognition; and the attendee lists of the 1995 and 1997 European Association of Psychology and Law biennial meetings. After the names were identified from these resources, the experimenters looked for individuals that had experience conducting eyewitness research. In addition, the list of names was then backed up by a PsycINFO search for members that had published an article, book chapter, or other paper eyewitness identifications within the previous 10 years. Lastly, the experts were solicited from subscribers to the PSYCHLAW listserve.

The Study

The study consisted of the experts selected receiving a questionnaire that they had to answer. The questionnaire had 30 statements that centered around the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. The complete 30 statements that were in the questionnaire is presented below:

Questionnaire Statements
Questionnaire Statements
(link to source)

The Findings

There were various findings in the study, but the results that are relevant to the role of expert testimony are the results that used the information from the above table to determine whether they, as experts, would be willing to testify about the presented statements/scenarios in court. The information is presented in the table below. The numbers represent the percentages of the experts that responded "yes" to the questions presented above each column. Take note of the way the experts respond to certain statements under the question, Would you testify?. Additionally, when asked about whether they thought their role was to educate the jury, assist a specific party, or for some other function, the experts responded that their primary purpose was to educate the jury (77% responded in this manner). Expert testimony is presented, according to Kassin et al. (1989), as a way of possibly changing the belief of jurors with regard to common sense, such as in making them aware of research findings that they did not know or by correcting certain ideas that they may have that were not supported by research. The table below also shows this idea in the response of the experts to the question, Common sense? In pointing out the responses of the experts to the Would you testify? question and the Common Sense? question, it is interesting to see the somewhat correlation between their responses.

Judgements Regarding The 30 Statements
Judgments Regarding The 30 Statements
(link to source)

The work of eyewitness experts are definitely of great value. They determine whether the information provided by eyewitness testimonies are valid and whether the jurors should attribute their decisions to the testimonies of these eyewitnesses. One website that we suggest you view in order to gain specific information regarding the different problems/issues that eyewitnesses encounter in providing accurate information is done by our colleagues, The Memory Crew.

Maybe you will think about the pressure that jurors feel the next time you have to serve jury duty!

(Leippe et al., 2004), (Kassin et al., 2001)
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