“60 Minutes” shows unreliability of “Eyewitness” testimony

Posted: March 13, 2009 by parchangelo in "Eyewitness Testimony", Uncategorized

Aired March 8, 2009, and hosted by Leslie Stahl, “60 Minutes” reports growing evidence that eyewitness testimony is much more unreliable than we understand it to be. The story featured Ronald Cotton, wrongly convicted in 1984 for rape and sentenced to life and 50 years after eyewitness testimony by the woman victim, Jennifer Thompson. Jennifer was the ideal eyewitness, someone who was alert and articulate and who was self-possessed through her ordeal and vowed to memorize every feature and aspect of her attacker so that she could correctly identify him afterward to help police convict the right person. The police ended up arresting Ronald, whose features were similar to the drawing. While the evidence against him was only circumstantial, the strength of Jennifer’s identification of him in her court testimony carried great weight with the jury. Jennifer’s honesty and the strength of her resolve to do right is impressive throughout the episode as she relates how convinced she was for years that she had identified the right person. She tells how her belief was unshakable even to the point that when she later saw another man in a second trial, Bobby Poole, who was her actual attacker, she failed to recognize him although he looked very similar to her drawing and Ronald Cotton.
Stahl explores with experts how Jennifer could have been so wrong after trying so hard to identify the right person. Experts now know that human memory is fragile, malleable, easily contaminated and often unreliable. The police often use the wrong procedure in presenting witnesses with photo line-ups of multiple individuals. When the actual perpetrator is not in any of the photos, people will wrongly identify the person who they feel most closely resembles the perpetrator, because they just assume that the guilty party is included in the line-up. Once the identification is made, memory will focus upon that person and  transform him or her into the guilty party in the mind of the witness, particularly when the selection of the witness is reinforced by some indication by a person of authority to them that they have acted correctly. So, even though Ronald Cotton recognized Bobby Poole in prison as the actual perpetrator of her rape based upon her composite drawing; Jennifer did not later recognize him in court, even face-to-face.
Ronald’s ordeal cost him 11 years of his life and pain to his family. The “60 Minutes” episode producer relates that what struck her so forcefully about his case was the many chance details of it that could have so easily resulted in him not being released despite his innocence. Over the course of years there was initial evidence which could have been destroyed or discarded and not available for the DNA testing which exonerated him. His contact with and recognition of Bobby Poole was itself highly improbable and he had to act on his own to bring Poole to the attention of his attorneys. And most disturbingly, there was the level of despair Ron experienced over the years which nearly drove him (an innocent person) to murder Poole in prison and thus commit an even greater crime than the rape he was imprisoned for.

Leslie Stahl questions in the course of this episode if eyewitness testimony should ever be trusted. That is a valid question when police have only imperfect eyewitness testimony to convict individuals of serious crimes. Police were once unaware of the fragility of human memory, but can no longer claim ignorance of proper procedures and the general inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony. You can read and view the full excerpts of the “60 Minutes” episode at the “60 Minutes” website at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/03/06/60minutes/main4848039.shtml along with background materials.

  1. scaryhouse says:

    60 minutes also has complete audio podcasts of their episodes.
    You can listen to one or subscribe for free.


  2. Ex Back says:

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  3. My fellow on Facebook shared this link with me and I’m not dissapointed that I came to your blog.


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