Eyewitness Testimony vs. Physical Evidence

By Badger, Joseph E. | Law & Order, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Eyewitness Testimony vs. Physical Evidence


Badger, Joseph E., Law & Order


Accident investigators find two kinds of evidence at a crash scene: physical evidence and human evidence. The physical consists of everything from tire marks to debris, while the human element involves comments by those people involved or by those who say they saw what happened. In October 1999, the Technical Working Group for Eyewitness Evidence put together a concise compendium called "Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement." This was posted on-line at www.ncjrs.org.

Psychologist Patrick Robins, PhD, an instructor at the Institute of Police Technology & Management (IPTM), used this manual in the text of his new book, Eyewitness Reliability in Motor Vehicle Accident Reconstruction and Litigation. The need for such research discussing both kinds of evidence is clear. Recent cases in which DNA evidence has been used to exonerate individuals convicted primarily on the basis of eyewitness testimony have shown that eyewitness evidence is not infallible. That infallibility is one of the reasons we investigate events where five supposed eyewitnesses give us five different accounts of what happened. Most courts, unfortunately, too often tend to accept eyewitness testimony over that of conclusions reached using physical evidence.

The time has come to enthusiastically challenge the notion that eyewitness evidence is inherently more valuable than physical evidence. Robins' point is that when physical evidence exists about a collision, and it leads to conclusions that are contrary to the eyewitness evidence, the physical evidence is far more compelling and should prevail.

Dr. Robins, whose teaching career began in Toronto at Ryerson Polytechnic University in 1983, backs up his opinions with experiments involving humans. His tests point out differences among sensory, short and long-term memory. Robins presented a lecture at IPTM addressing a room full of trained observers. He showed a series of slides and then asked the group about a particular car at a stop sign. Several officers said they saw it, when in fact there was no stop sign-- it was a yield sign. This points out how witnesses can become convinced they saw things they couldn't have seen. This is also why investigators must watch how they interview people. Robins suggests that witnesses will take new information, which was never originally experienced, and integrate that information into memory. Subsequently, these modified memories are treated as faithful renditions of the original events. Expecting an eyewitness to recall minute details of a series of events leading up to a motor vehicle collision is rather like examining a motion detector for details of an intruder's appearance.

This book is not particularly aimed at scholars in the area of eyewitness reliability. Rather, it is aimed at working practitioners within the broad field of collision reconstruction and might include at the very least reconstructionists, prosecutors, judges, police officers, engineers, insurance investigators and researchers. …

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