THE TRUTH ABOUT EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY By: Mark Sargeant, Msc.
For some period of time, in the Caribbean region, there has been some strong reliance on the eyewitness testimony. This over reliance on eyewitness testimony has serious consequences such as the potential for false identification of persons, misleading evidence and even the creation of events which had never occurred.
Eyewitness testimony is often centred on a person’s memory. To expand on this, it is basically how much a person can recall in a short period of time and how detailed they can relate that same information.
An experiment was conducted where in a mock trial with two separate sets of jurors heard the same case. The difference was, one set jurors heard the case with no eyewitness to identify the accused the other jury heard the case with the accused being identified. The findings of the experiment found that 18% of the jurors gave a guilty verdict when there was not identification of the witness compared to 78% when an eyewitness identified the accused. When the identification was successfully challenged, 68% of the jurors still gave a guilty verdict Studies by memory psychologists have also shown that eyewitness testimony is grossly unreliable, subjective in nature and subjected to changes due to the environment.
Let us examine three areas that affect the reliability eyewitness testimony.
The subjectivity of eyewitness testimony can be found in one’s prejudice to a situation, belief, past experiences, or lifestyle. Consider a man wearing dreadlocks is observed walking along a beach. A few hours later packages of drugs are discovered in the same area of the beach. It is quite possible that the observer (eyewitness) could identify the dreadlocks man as being involved.
In the above scenario the lifestyle of the man formed the subjective opinion of the eyewitness.
The subjective nature of the eyewitness testimony could also be related to the perspective (view point) or physical position relative to an unfolding event. Different view points would cause each witness to have varying opinions on spacial relationships between the accused and the victim, or where objects were in relation to persons or other items.
Although the ethnicity of the Caribbean is mostly black, race still has a predominant effect on eyewitness objectivity. A witness is more likely to identify a person of a particularly race, based on a presumption of what that particular race is identified with, and so misidentification of persons can be produced in this environment. One such case is that of a white lady who reported that her children were kidnapped by a black man at gun point. This scenario captivated a whole community and everyone was confident that the story was true. It was only till several days later that Police realised flaws in the story. The lady then admitted that she drowned her children in a lake. The expectation of a black man kidnapping children was what misled investigators for days.
In every society there are certain expectations of different race, class, religious belief or lifestyle. If shown three pictures, one black man; one white man; and one of Arab appearance, then asked to pick the terrorist, nine times out of ten you are mostly like to pick the Arab.
Most criminal events occur within a few seconds. Imagine a crowded room and shots are fired and within a minute or a couple of seconds the event is over. In that short time, a witness to the event records the sights and sounds while running for cover. Their viewpoint of the incident and their recollection of the event are usually exaggerated. That is to say, an event can be over-estimated with respects to time. Research have shown that the greater the crime, the greater the over-estimation of information. In some instances when a shooting occurs, there are always mistakes in recollecting the number of shots fired, especially if there is rapid fire and or supersonic bullets are fired. Supersonic bullets will produce a sonic boom when their speed exceeds the speed of sound. Thus firing a single supersonic bullet could be counted as two shots, one when it is fired and a second when the same bullet passes the speed of sound.
What if the room is not well lit? Can an eyewitness clearly describe the persons involved? Low light conditions can also cause the mind to record low resolution images of accused person or persons. Hence, it is very easy for witnesses to misidentify person as being the ones to carryout the crime.
Time contraction is also a problem where two significant events are separated by a period of little or no consequence. A witness’s memory is more focused on recalling the significant events rather than insignificant ones. Thus the time between events is contracted, accelerating the whole scenario. For example, a friend leaves your house to go home and an hour later you heard that person was involved in an accident. The first conclusion would be that person just left your home. This contraction of time can place a person in the proximity of a crime, which could have very serious consequences if that person does not have a strong alibi.
The other challenge of eyewitness testimony is that of the environment. Witnesses under stress tend to be a lot more inaccurate about the details of an event. Stress factors and the influence of drugs and alcohol are known to alter the state of memory, thus making recollection of the event questionable.
Under pressure of questioning, a person might believe that they should have seen something. For instance, a question posed during an interview of a witness could be “You were in the area, so you must have seen something?” This line of (suggestive) questioning implies to the witness that they had to have seen something, because they were in the general proximity of the event – whether during, before or after the event. Depending on how convincing the interviewer is the witness could create information with serious consequences.
Filling the blanks of an event when they are not within the view is another serious flaw of Eyewitness testimony. This occurs when an eyewitness sees a part of an event. What the mind would do is to construct the entire event with a combination of the first hand information (what the witness sees of the event) and third hand information (what the witness hears, smells, and recalls from other persons).
So how eyewitness testimony should be weighted? It should be considered in light of other evidence. Collaborating evidence (evidence of fact that supports or confirms other evidence) such video footage, physical evidence and or independent documents, should be used to validate eyewitness testimony. As in some cases a lot could to bear on the eyewitness testimony of persons living in the area of a major event. It is always interesting to see how such testimonies would be collaborated.