Helping jurors ‘see’ what eye witnesses said they saw
Eye witness identification is notoriously inaccurate and yet jurors rely on it heavily. Those working within the system decry this reliance but there are few remedies proposed. Until now.
Multiple studies have shown jurors are unable to distinguish between eye witnesses testifying at trial were correct in their identifications. Researchers thought juror inability to discriminate between accurate and inaccurate eye witnesses might be due to their assessment of witness confidence on the stand. Since the actual identification is typically made months or years before trial, the eye witness is often just testifying to what they said before, not to what they can say definitively from seeing the defendant in the courtroom. Opinions and memories (be they accurate or false) tend to crystallize over time, say these researchers, so most eye witnesses are going to be confident on the stand. Even if the witness is asked how long it took them to identify the defendant or how long it has been since the incident–jurors must rely on witness recall rather than their own assessment.
So the researchers planned a fairly involved experiment including conducting a mock trial with jurors either viewing courtroom examination of the eye witness only or examination of the witness in court plus viewing the video of the initial identification of the defendant (live lineup or photo lineup). Participants then filled out questionnaires including these questions, among others:
How likely is it that the witness identified the actual perpetrator as opposed to an innocent person?
If this witness’ testimony were the only evidence against the defendant, how likely would you be to convict the defendant?
Please rate the witness’ confidence about the identification.
How sure are you about this [verdict] decision?
Jurors who saw both the courtroom examination and the initial identification video were more accurate in identifying accurate versus inaccurate eye witnesses. Obviously, they found the defendant guilty more often when the eye witness was accurate versus inaccurate. They made fewer overall convictions than jurors who were not shown the video of the original identification. [And in fact, when jurors were only shown the courtroom testimony of the eyewitness there was no discrimination between accurate and inaccurate witnesses and no difference in the number of convictions jurors made based on eyewitness accuracy.]
The researchers recommend that all eyewitness descriptions of the perpetrator and the original identification task (whether lineup or photographs) be video recorded as trial evidence. They believe having videotaped identification will help multiple members of the criminal justice system. It could help police recall details about identification tasks while preparing for trial, could aid prosecutors in making decisions about whether to take cases with weak identification to trial, and could help jurors to assess the credibility of eye witness identifications.
This may well be a promising avenue for further exploration. Although discouraging that, according to the literature review, the videotaping of witness identification of defendants was recommended as early as 1992–the increase in concern about eye witness accuracy over the last decade could help with implementation of this sort of strategy.
Reardon, M., & Fisher, R. (2011). Effect of viewing the interview and identification process on juror perceptions of eyewitness accuracy Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25 (1), 68-77 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1643
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