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Are jurors more skeptical when a witness makes multiple IDs [some wrong] of the defendant?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

We all know the hazards of eye-witness identification. It simply isn’t reliable. Yet jurors often are strongly convinced by the testimony of the eye witness. So researchers wondered if jurors would be swayed by knowledge of ID inconsistencies on the part of the eye witness. That is, if the witness chose someone other than the defendant prior to court and then identified the defendant as the perpetrator in court–would that make a difference to jurors?

The researchers decided to assess both ID inconsistencies and the confidence of the witness [either 10% confident or 100% confident] in their identification of the perpetrator. They created eight versions of a three page mock trial summary and varied accurate or inaccurate lineup IDs as well as the witness’ confidence in their initial lineup ID decisions. All lineup IDs in the written scenarios were followed up by a second lineup ID decision in which the witness identified the suspect who was the defendant and then a third identification in court.

The researchers found that:

Jurors preferred the witness ID decision and the description of the accused to match. That helped them to see the witness as more reliable.

Jurors also preferred consistency (and accuracy) in the witness IDs over time.

When the witness was 100% confident in the initial ID, jurors were likely to see the ID as more reliable.

However, mock jurors did NOT render more guilty verdicts or rate the defendant ‘more guilty’ when the witness provided consistent IDs and expressed high confidence.

So, the research participants liked consistency of IDs in theory and they liked the confident witness. But it didn’t make a difference in their guilty verdicts. When questioned afterwards, they were unable to identify what factors/evidence contributed to their verdict.

That’s scary. And frankly, we are not clear about whether this would happen on a real jury where the stakes are more real. In our mock juries, when jurors are deliberating, someone always raises the question of inconsistency in identification (if there is any) and they talk about the confidence/certainty of the witness. Sometimes that conversation goes “she was very confident but obviously wrong” and other times it is “he wasn’t certain initially but the description matched and in court he was more confident”. There is a synergy in group discussion/deliberation that is simply missing when single research participants complete their questionnaires in isolation.

Those of us who have been in trial know it is a path fraught with contradiction and mystery and sadly, not an entirely predictable route to verdict. Using pretrial research to identify (and fill) holes in your case narrative, identify the challenges to witness credibility, and see which jurors respond more positively to your case is of critical importance.

Pozzulo, JD, & O’Neill, MC (2011). Juror decision making when a witness makes multiple identification decisions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

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