Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Memory and Eyewitness Testimony

In spite of statistics showing that eyewitness misidentification is the most common element in all wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence, witness testimony has remained a gold standard of the criminal justice system, according to The New York Times.

For the first time in three decades, the validity of using eyewitness testimony has come under review by the Supreme Court in a case involving a New Hampshire man who was convicted of theft based on the identification by a woman who saw him from a distance in the dead of night.

Earlier in the year, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a landmark decision requiring major changes in the way courts are required to evaluate identification evidence at trial and how they should instruct juries. The new changes require courts to greatly expand the factors that courts and juries should consider in assessing the risk of misidentification.

When selective attention combines with fear, "you have a very strong memory for a few details," said Elizabeth Phelps, a psychology professor at New York University. "Emotion gives us confidence more than it gives us accuracy."

The problem comes when witnesses bring that certainty to the entire memory. In crimes that involve a weapon, Dr. Loftus and other scientists have found that witnesses will fixate on the gun barrel or knife blade but will fail to notice other details as clearly. Yet because they so starkly remember particulars of the weapon and may have the accuracy of parts of their memory affirmed by police officers and prosecutors, witnesses carry an air of assurance into the courtroom.

Read the full article.

Understand the causes of eyewitness misidentification

Read about sequential lineups and the recent report: A Test of Simultaneous vs. Sequential Lineup Methods: An Initial Report of the AJS National Eyewitness Identification Field Studies

Source - Innocence Project Blog