Simple Jury Persuasion: Teaching Jurors to Better Assess Eyewitness Testimony
While we know that eyewitness testimony is often suspect, it can be useful to help jurors know how to assess the validity of eyewitness testimony for themselves. You might be interested in a new study identifying a simple strategy for teaching them just that.
The authors point out that eyewitness testimony is frequently the primary (and often the sole) source of evidence in a criminal case. Yet, eyewitness error is also the leading cause of wrongful felony convictions. Their review of the literature indicates jurors have trouble evaluating eyewitness accuracy for a number of reasons.
They have limited knowledge of eyewitness testimony in general.
They rely on factors that are not good predictors of accuracy and inaccuracy (e.g., consistency of testimony, ability to recall minor details and the eyewitness’ confidence).
And they overlook factors that are good predictors of accuracy or inaccuracy (e.g., presence of a weapon, perpetrator use of a simple disguise like a hat, and police procedures in the specific case).
Jurors have trouble integrating what they do know about eyewitness factors into their judgment of the specific case. This is true even when they are given expert testimony during the course of the trial.
The researchers tested the “I-I-Eye” model (interview-identification-eyewitness model) for analyzing eyewitness accuracy. This model has three steps: first, the interview conducted by law enforcement is assessed; second, the identification procedures are identified using scientific guidelines; and finally, the actual eyewitness factors at the crime scene are assessed to determine how they might have affected eyewitness accuracy.
293 undergraduate students (enrolled in Psychology 101 naturally) from three different universities read a trial transcript for the robbery of a convenience store and murder of the store clerk with one eyewitness. The participants read either a case with strong eyewitness evidence or one with weak eyewitness evidence. The cases were made either strong or weak by the police procedures (either strong or inconsistent) described in the case transcript. One group of the participants was trained in the I-I-E model; another group was educated about the Biggers factors (the Supreme Court mandated model that came up for review in 2011); and a third group was simply given general information about a trial that would likely be received by jurors. Finally, a fourth group was given both the general information and the Biggers information.
The authors describe the information given to the research participants as follows:
“Jury Duty aid: The Jury Duty teaching aid (hereafter ‘JD’) was one of two control aids. It emphasized the importance of being fair and impartial, and weighing all of the evidence before reaching a verdict. It also presented information about a defendant’s right to a jury trial, identified the main participants in a criminal trial, and defined legal terms, such as opening statements, cross-examination, closing arguments, and jury instructions.
Neil v. Biggers aid: The Neil v. Biggers control teaching aid (hereafter ‘NvB’) described the five eyewitness factors that the Supreme Court stated jurors should consider when evaluating eyewitness accuracy (Neil v. Biggers, 1972). It also presented a rationale for each of the Biggers factors.
I-I-Eye aid: The I-I-Eye teaching aid described a three-step method for analyzing eyewitness accuracy. It instructed participants to first evaluate whether the eyewitness interviews were conducted properly, then to assess whether the identification procedures were conducted properly, and finally to evaluate whether the eyewitness factors at the crime scene were conducive to an accurate identification. The I-I-Eye aid gave participants examples of factors they should consider when evaluating the interview (e.g., open-ended questions vs. closed-ended or leading questions, the time between the crime and the interview), the identification procedure (e.g., a double-blind lineup vs. a non-double-blind lineup, the time lapse between the crime and the identification procedure, the size of the lineup, whether the suspect stood out from the fillers, and whether a statement of confidence was taken prior to any feedback) and the eyewitness factors at the crime scene (e.g., a same race or cross-racial identification, problems with alcohol or drug intoxication, the level of stress, the eyewitness’s age, and whether the perpetrator was disguised). The I-I-Eye aid emphasized the importance of interview and lineup variables on eyewitness accuracy because they can generally be controlled and documented, whereas the effects of crime scene factors on eyewitness accuracy can only be estimated. The participants were instructed that if the interview, lineup, or both were suggestive or unfair, they should question the accuracy of the eyewitness’s identification. They were also instructed that if the interview and lineup were conducted properly, then the eyewitness’s identification may still be accurate even if the eyewitness conditions during the crime were somewhat less than ideal.”
In each transcript, the eyewitness was a police officer and there was an alibi witness who was the “defendant’s girlfriend”. The researchers hypothesized that those who viewed the I-I-E aid would give more guilty verdicts for the strong eyewitness case and fewer guilty verdicts for the weak case when compared to those participants seeing either the Jury Duty aid or the Biggers aid. And they were right. Here is a graphic from the article showing the difference between jurors assessments of who was guilty and who was not across the strong and weak cases.
In brief, not only did the I-I-Eye training help participants better assess the quality of the eyewitness testimony–it increased their ability to do that by 25% to 28%. That’s a big margin of difference, and there was no traditional expert testimony. The authors say the benefit of using the I-I-Eye training is that it not only educates about eyewitness factors but also teaches the learner how to apply those factors to a specific case. They also comment that the I-I-Eye model could be of benefit to the legal system at multiple junctures in a case.
The authors’ assertion that there was no eyewitness testimony in the I-I-Eye training is obviously questionable. The training itself is expert testimony of a sort, and it isn’t clear to us that courts would allow it. If allowed, though, training could be incorporated into testimony by an eyewitness expert to aid jurors in assessing the accuracy of testimony.
Clearly, the results of this study indicate that jurors will evaluate the testimony with much more confidence about credibility. It also seems likely that if jurors knew more about what makes eyewitness testimony more reliable, investigators will begin conducting interviews in a way that is consistent with the identified strategies. Minimizing inaccurate eyewitness testimony (or teaching jurors how to evaluate it) should reduce conviction errors and cases of false imprisonment.
Pawlenko, NB, Safer, MA, Wise, RA, & Holfeld, B. (2012). A teaching aid for improving jurors’ assessment of eyewitness accuracy. Applied Cognitive Psychology.