More specifically, the assumption that memory provides an accurate recording of experience, much like … 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. The problem is these eyewitness accounts aren't always accurate. Imagine if police let unauthorized people have willy-nilly access to a crime scene that is under investigation. Juries tend to pay close attention to eyewitness testimony and generally find it a reliable source of information. External input makes eyewitness testimony unreliable. 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. People are different in the way they recognize and recall events especially through perception. 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. But in 57 percent of those cases, it was possible to determine what happened on the initial (uncontaminated) memory test. When word reached Cotton that the police were looking for him, he walked into a precinct voluntarily. Many believe that this conviction was based on contaminated DNA evidence. Eyewitness testimony may only be credible under these circumstances. To see why, let us revisit those DNA exoneration cases that so often involve eyewitness misidentification. This can affect eyewitness testimony because what if the witness is better in recalling than in recognizing. By the time Thompson faced Cotton in court a year later, her doubts were gone. Second, the police lineup has to be fair (that is, the suspect should not stand out). 30, 2020. 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. 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. © 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science. But he worries that police, jurors, and even judges will misinterpret eyewitness confidence levels. 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. 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. 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. It’s been able to definitively prove that eyewitness accounts were incorrect. "I think this is the guy," she told the police after several minutes of hesitation. Problems with Eyewitness Testimony Memory Is Malleable. Like eyewitness memory, DNA evidence can be contaminated with the trace of an innocent person. And third, the confidence expressed by the eyewitness following an identification of someone from the lineup must be recorded. DNA evidence has played a big role in proving the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. "Can those subtleties be applied in a balanced way in people who are coming in with clear biases and preconceived notions?". Cotton was set free. 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. 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. The answer seems like a resounding “yes” if you consider some well-known and rather disconcerting information. 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. 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 … Eyewitnesses are generally unaware that their memory has been altered by post-event information 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. 51 The visual attention given by a witness to a weapon can impair his or her ability to make a reliable … Eyewitness testimony is an important area of research in cognitive psychology and human memory. By Jon Cohen, Dennis NormileDec. In the first one, the Innocence project examined many cases where they used DNA to exonerate 130 cases. Once an eyewitness gets to court to give testimony, false memories may have become crystallized. Laura Mickes is an academic at Royal Holloway, University of London. She confidently pointed to him as the man who raped her. What would that mean for the reliability of the blood or fingerprint evidence, for example, collected at that scene? Thompson picked out 22-year-old Ronald Cotton, whose photograph was on file because of a robbery committed in his youth. 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. Attorney Randolph Hough has decades of criminal defense experience and will put that experience to work for you to protect your freedom and reputation. 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. Courts may be "leaving more criminals on the streets and putting more innocent people behind bars than they should be. And indeed, that's exactly how it worked out. Subscribers get more award-winning coverage of advances in science & technology. 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 … He was eventually sentenced to life in prison based on Thompson's testimony. To do this, proper testing protocols that reduce chances of contamination need to be followed. So, how reliable is eyewitness testimony? 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. "Our whole point is that you have to pay attention to confidence expressed on the initial identification only." 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. 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. Not so with eyewitness memory. 30 According to … 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. What it means is that the malleability of memory can harm reliability. As with DNA evidence, eyewitness evidence needs to be safeguarded against contamination. Are Eyewitnesses in the Zimmerman Trial Reliable? 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. 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. Instead evidence collected at the contaminated crime scene would probably be declared inadmissible. 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. Jury’s place great reliance on eyewitness testimony and ignore the dangers of false memories (Engelhardt, n. d). AAAS is a partner of HINARI, AGORA, OARE, CHORUS, CLOCKSS, CrossRef and COUNTER. The study shows that there is real information to be gained from the initial confidence level, says Craig Stark, a psychologist at UC Irvine. Karpel et al (2001) as cited in Science Aid carried out research associated with age and eyewitness testimony. 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. But many researchers have voiced concerns about whether these laboratory experiments accurately reflect real-world situations. 7 hours ago — Emily V. Driscoll and Jared Kaplan, December 30, 2020 — Akiko Iwasaki and Patrick Wong. 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. Assessing confidence is critical because it provides direct information about the trustworthiness of the uncontaminated ID. 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. Subsequent memory tests, including the dramatic one that occurs in court in front of the jury, constitute contaminated evidence. 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. If the contaminated evidence is relied on to establish guilt versus innocence at a trial, the risk of a wrongful conviction is high. What facts gave rise to the belief that Leiterman may have been wrongfully convicted based on contaminated evidence? No one doubts that eyewitness evidence is risky. 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." And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Psychologists have learned a lot about why such errors happen. 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”). Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? In a trial, the jury is most often persuaded due to the statement(s) of the witnesses. In contrast, a high-confidence ID is highly accurate, a surprising fact that has only recently come to be appreciated by experimental psychologists. 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). 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. John Wixted is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego. 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. What law enforcement—and the public—needs to know. Eyewitness testimony relies heavily on the capability of the individual’s to accurately recount the event. Why is this the case? Instead, he raped her and fled. 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. Because of examples like these, the U.S. justice system has been changing how eyewitnesses are used in criminal cases. Consider the important, and often overlooked, distinction between malleability and reliability. “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. John is a former contributing correspondent for Science. Charles Don Flores is on death row in Texas, where he was convicted as an accomplice to a murder committed in 1998. 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. 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. The Flores case shows how our criminal justice system mishandles eyewitness testimony Eyewitness testimony is reliable, but only under specific circumstances Charles Don … Faulty eyewitness testimony has been implicated in at least 75% of DNA exoneration cases—more than any other cause ( Garrett, 2011 ). Memory is not as reliable as we would like to think. Most of us are pretty confident about our powers of observation and the reliability of our memory. Roughly 13 of cases in which a person was wrongfully ... Convictions overturned by DN Evans were based on on reliable eyewitness testimony. For every one of those tests, the eyewitnesses were, at best, uncertain. 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