Magazine article The Futurist

Witnesses: A Weak Link in the Judicial System

Magazine article The Futurist

Witnesses: A Weak Link in the Judicial System

Article excerpt

Witness problems can hinder criminal trials and science cases.

Jurors in criminal trials are more often persuaded by the testimony of confident eyewitnesses than by objective evidence, such as fingerprints, fiber analyses, or DNA matches. But eyewitness testimony can be seriously flawed because eyewitnesses are influenced by the positive and negative responses they receive from the police after they identify a suspect, according to two recent studies by the American Psychological Association.

In the first study, 352 people were shown a grainy surveillance videotape of a person who later shot and killed a store security guard. The participants were asked to identify the man they had seen on the videotape by choosing from a photospread of five faces that did not include the actual gunman. After picking a suspect, the participants were randomly told that they had made either the correct or the incorrect choice, or received no feedback. They then answered a series of questions, including how easy or hard it was to choose a photo, how good a view they had of the gunman, and how willing they would be to testify in court.

Although all of the participants were equally wrong, those who received positive feedback were the most confident of their decisions. Positive feedback also seemed to distort the witnesses' reports of almost every aspect of the identification process. These participants remembered having a better view of the culprit, needing less time to make the identification, paying more attention to the videotape, and having an easier time choosing the suspect than participants who received negative feedback or no feedback.

The memory distortion resulting from positive feedback served "to manufacture credible witnesses from a pool of inaccurate witnesses who were not particularly credible on their own," say the authors of the study. The second study confirmed that most of the eyewitnesses' memories were influenced by positive feedback, even though they denied the influence.

Police practices should be changed in light of the study results, according to the American Psychological Association. The police can counter feedback-caused memory distortion by asking witnesses how confident they are about their identifications before receiving any feedback. …

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