Archive for the ‘“Eyewitness Testimony”’ Category

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There is reason for the public to shudder at the high number of wrongful convictions coming out of the state’s judicial system, even if they are not your hands gripping the steel uprights of a prison cell.

It means that real perpetrators are free to commit more crimes.

“The consequences are too grave for not using available, proven methods of preventing wrongful convictions,” said Stephen Saloom, policy director for the past eight and a half years of the Innocence Project. “It’s outrageous.”

What Saloom referred to was the failure, once again, of the New York state Legislature to enact reforms that would require law enforcement and prosecutors to videotape interrogations and use double blind lineups.

Bills requiring both methods be used and taught to police trainees died in committees.

“We know that our criminal justice system relies on unreliable forms of evidence — false confessions and eyewitness misidentification — proven methods are readily available and prosecutors and law enforcement don’t want to be required to use them,” Saloom said.

via Prove innocence of innocent – Times Union.

Eyewitness testimony can be blurry, so juries must weigh it carefully, says New Jersey’s top court, citing such research findings as the following:

A report by the Innocence Project at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law that out of 254 persons wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence, 75 percent had been found guilty on the basis of faulty eyewitness identification.

A British study of 3,100 lineups found that 35 percent of witnesses had mistakenly fingered lineup “fillers.”

An experiment involving a staged crime and 500 unwitting bank tellers and store clerks found that nearly one-half later made mistakenly identified “perpetrators.”

A university study in which students made computer “composites” of their professor found that only 3 percent of other students in the experiment who knew him could match him to the composites.

Numerous studies reported that identification accuracy deteriorates sharply under stress and additionally with the distracting presence of a gun.

Identification accuracy starts to degrade significantly within two hours of an incident, multiple studies have concluded.

via Bad calls by witness ‘umps’ – The Trentonian.

The uninformed public gives the testimony of “eyewitnesses” far too much credibility. Do any research on the reliability of eyewitness testimony and you find that not only do people not remember correctly what they think or are certain that they saw, but you learn that all too often studies show that ideas and suggestions made after an incident happens or the desire of an individual to be “helpful” ends up tainting or rewriting peoples memories of events. The final memory that people believe is accurate is fragile and can bear little resemblence to the truth.

People should be a little more self-aware of how fleeting and susceptible their own memories are about events that happen around them and their own interactions with other individuals, and that we should know that our memories often cannot be relied upon. You would think that we would be very cautious in expressing certainty based upon our observations; particularly when the lives and well-being of others are affected by what we claim we saw or know.

Yet humans continue to bear witness to false memories and the consequences upon others, as in the two articles below, is disastrous. Jacques Rivera, served 21 years of an 80-year sentence before the appeals court accepted the recanted testimony of Orlando Lopez, the man who fingered Rivera for murder and who originally testified against him. Even now, Rivera is not free, but remains held without bond in Cook County jail, (a jail no one wants to be held in) waiting for the state to decide if it will still retry him for the 1988 murder. Inmate Jamie Snow, has not been so lucky. Even though his attorneys state that a former police officer who is now an inmate can discredit a prime witness’s claim that he saw Snow leave the scene of a murder, and despite that recantation of the testimony of other witnesses, Snow was still recently denied the chance for a new trial. He is just fighting to get his argument heard without any assurance that his life sentence will be overturned.

New trial for man convicted in ’88 murder after witness recants

Inmate appeals denial of new trial in 1991 killing

IL needs a law which prevents eyewitness testimony to either be used alone or in conjunction with just circumstantial evidence to convict anyone of a crime, particularly serious crimes. The consequences to those wrongfully convicted are too great and the error rate in eyewitness testimony is too high to justify such heavy reliance upon it in those cases. There are too many wrongfully convicted, particularly in IL, and too few resources to help them after they have been screwed. Thank goodness for the efforts of Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions and those individual attorneys who, in these tough times, still care enough to do the hard work and investigation required to prove the innocence of those convicted only by eyewitness testimony or circumstantial evidence.

The DNA exonerations not only have corrected injustices on a scale previously unimagined, they also have provided an unprecedented opportunity to learn about the causes of and remedies for error in criminal cases. These cases reveal not isolated mistakes, but systemic flaws. They reveal that wrongful convictions have identifiable causes, causes that can be addressed. Because so much is at stake, they must be addressed.

via They didnt do the crime – JSOnline.

Chuck and Josh, the co-hosts of the popular podcast “Stuff You Should Know” take a look at The Innocence Project and with astonishing statistics unveil some misconceptions about how well our police and justice system work.

Listen to it by clicking here.

Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were convicted in an Italian court yesterday of complicity in the murder of Meredith Kercher (Amanda’s roommate). Amanda was sentenced to 26 years in prison and Raffaele to 25 years.

Are they guilty? Who knows? In our opinion, if they had been tried in a US court, we believe that there would have been sufficient basis to find “reasonable doubt” regarding their guilt. They may not be the most “likable” individuals, and they may have acted unwisely at many times, but that is far from being two “cold-blooded, brutal” murderers.

The immediate response of many in the US is to view the this case as the Italian prosecution’s attempt to convict Amanda and Raffaele for the “inappropriate behavior” and amoral lifestyle of two young Americans living abroad. Timothy Egan’s December 2, 2009, Opinionator, online commentary article in the New York Times at is typical of the degree and nature of the US public outrage being expressed regarding the judgmental attitudes shown by Italian society towards what we Americans perceive as the mostly average and innocent behavior of college aged students. The 400 plus reader comments following his opinion show many in agreement with Mr. Egan’s sentiments.

Most American commentors on the conviction and sentencing of Knox and Sollecito reach the conclusion that their convictions were factually unfounded and their punishment harsh. Many commentors also maintain that American society and the US justice system would never have proceeded to similarly judge and prosecute either based upon so little and so circumstantial evidence to support any assumption of their guilt. Unfortunately, many of us fail to recognize the realities of our own system.

The general American assumption and belief expressed in the impartiality and wise conduct of our judicial system is obviously inaccurate. If that were the case, then our own Rockford authorities would have publicly announced that Richard Wanke is no longer a “person of interest” in the murder of attorney Greg Clark, nearly two years ago, and they would also have dismissed by now the obstruction of justice charge still pending against his landlord, Diane Chavez.

After all, where is the direct evidence linking either of our two friends to the Greg Clark shooting? There may have been some DNA, some fingerprints, some blood, some footprints in the Knox and Sollecito cases to muddle the investigatory waters. But, what explanation exists for the continued bull-headedness of our local authorities?

None, that we at can see. The Rockford police would have found any similar evidence by now linking our friends to the murder, if it existed, considering the exhaustive investigation the Rockford police have conducted and the dissection they have done of two individual lives. Despite whatever improbable witness “sightings” early claimed in the media; our own knowledge of our friends tells us that our authorities must by now have amassed much more concrete evidence to show them that their assumptions connecting either of them to the murder is implausible and wrong. And we are not discussing the typical scenario of the amoral actions of two “irresponsible” teenagers or college students, but a significant variance authorities claim manifested in the normal, very quiet and respectable community life led by at least one of these older, settled individuals.

Our American system is as faulty in many respects as the Italian judicial system that many are now criticizing. Our judicial system has, after all, higher standards than any other judicial system. We hold that people are “innocent until proven guilty”, and it is supposed to be more than lip service to an ideal. As Americans, we profess that the liberty of each individual of our society is the most valuable of our ideals and thus most deserving of the protection by the law. We hold ourselves morally above other societies whenever we perceive individual existence in those societies being subject to the exploitation of the law to serve other purposes.

We, at wish that innocent individuals could rely upon the judicial system to correct mistakes that are made; and rely upon the authorities to recognize in the course of their extensive investigations the difference between innocence and implausible scenarios, and thus act accordingly, and free the innocent. But, that doesn’t happen in our American judicial system, no matter how hard we pretend that it does.

false memory

Posted: September 18, 2009 by scornn in "Eyewitness Testimony"

seen this it is cool how a memory can be forced on people

out of 16 people in this video only one passed the test

Play along I passed and got 7 words on the first and 6 on the second test

Article by Rodley Balko, April 8, 2009, taken from Reasonline, <>

New research and DNA exonerations call fresh attention to an old problem Radley Balko | April 8, 2009 DNA testing has been something of a mixed blessing for prosecutors. Provided the samples are handled correctly, a positive test on hair, blood, semen, or other biological evidence can conclusively put a suspect at a crime scene. But the scientific certainty of DNA testing has also exposed just how flawed other arrows in the prosecutor’s quiver really are. DNA exonerations have called into question the accuracy of ballistics analysis, bite mark evidence, hair and carpet fiber evidence, shoe print analysis, jailhouse informants, and even fingerprint identification, once the gold standard of the forensics world.

The latest form of evidence to come under scrutiny is eyewitness testimony. Psychologists have long known about the fallibility of human memory. As far back as 1971, England’s Criminal Law Review Committee warned that over-reliance on eyewitness testimony could lead to false convictions. Going back even to the 1800s, famed psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus’s memory research established the “Forgetting Curve,” which plots how human recollection fades over time, beginning within minutes of the creation of a memory.

Nevertheless, eyewitness testimony remains a vital part of the criminal justice system, and with good reason. It’s the most abundant form of evidence, and it would be nearly impossible to convict guilty people without it. The problem is that it has for far too long been used irresponsibly, without instituting proper controls to ensure that eyewitnesses aren’t prodded into false recollections, that jurors aren’t permitted to give eyewitnesses more weight than good science allows, and that jurors are made aware of the limits and fallibility of human memory.

DNA testing has thrust the shortcomings of eyewitness recollection back into the spotlight. The cases of Timothy Cole and Ronald Cotton in particular have renewed the discussion. Cole was convicted in 1986 of a rape he didn’t commit. Though the real perpetrator confessed to the crime in 1995 and maintained his confession for years after, Cole’s name wasn’t officially cleared until yesterday. Unfortunately, Cole died in prison in 1999. His family says he couldn’t get proper treatment for his asthma while incarcerated.

Cotton was convicted of raping college student Jennifer Thompson in 1984, due entirely to Thompson’s identification of him in a police lineup. Cotton was also eventually exonerated by DNA testing and—in a rare happy ending for one of these cases—he and Thompson have since reconciled and now advocate together for criminal justice reform. They’ve just written a book together, and were the subject of recent reports by 60 Minutes and Newsweek.

According to a study published earlier this year in the journal Law and Human Behavior, false eyewitness testimony contributed to 77 percent of the 230 wrongful convictions exposed by DNA evidence over the last decade (the number of exonerations has grown since the study was conducted). These of course are only those cases for which DNA testing was available, which are usually murder and rape cases—crimes for which, generally speaking, there is also usually other evidence available. In crimes where investigators are more likely to rely only on eyewitnesses, robberies or muggings, for example, it’s likely that the problem is even more pronounced.

Psychologists and criminologists have known about these problems with eyewitness testimony long before advances in DNA testing proved them. But it’s even more troubling to consider that eyewitnesses tend to become more confident in their identifications with positive feedback.

In a 1999 study, Iowa State researchers Gary Wells and Amy Bradford showed participants grainy video footage of a real case in which a man shot and killed a security guard while robbing a convenience store. They were then given a spread of five pictures, and told that the culprit was included in the photo set. Every one of the participants claimed they could positively identify the culprit. They were all wrong. The researchers had deliberately excluded his photo from the lineup. More troubling still, when one group of participants was given positive feedback from the researchers, that group became more confident in their identifications. Half said they were now “certain” of their identification. Those participants also said they would be more willing to testify against the suspect. They were more likely to describe the security footage as “clear” than other participants and, notably, also denied that the positive feedback had any effect on their identification.

A study released this year takes Wells and Bradford’s experiment even further. Psychologists Lisa Hasel of Iowa State University and Saul Kassin of John Jay College staged a laptop theft in front of a group of students. The students were then shown a lineup of possible suspects. The lineup did not include the actual thief. The students weren’t told they had to pick someone, only to pick the suspect if they recognized him. They were then asked to rate their confidence in their selection from one to 10. Just 33 students correctly said that none of the photos was a match; 173 identified a suspect from the lineup.

The researchers then brought the students back two days later. Some of the students were told that one of the suspects had confessed. Half the students who originally (and correctly) refused to finger a suspect from the lineup changed their minds, now asserting that the person who confessed was indeed the person they saw. Of those who identified the suspect who later confessed, their confidence level in their identification increased from a six to an 8.5. It’s important to note that the students weren’t asked to rate their confidence in the suspect’s guilt, only in their ability to identify him from memory. Even though memory fades over time, the false confession made them more confident in their recollection.

All of this research should tell us that we need to institute reforms. Even subtle, unintentional feedback from police or prosecutors can lead to false identifications. Witness and photo lineups should be double-blind, where neither the officer conducting the lineup nor the witness knows which person is the suspect. Lineups should also include people that the police know are innocent. If a witness selects a known innocent, police and prosecutors will then know that particular witness’s memory isn’t reliable enough to be used as evidence.

Unfortunately, neither the spate of DNA exonerations nor the research on eyewitness identification has changed how police investigate crimes or how prosecutors try them. Though a few major police departments, most notably in Dallas, are considering some reforms, Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project, told Nature last year that despite all of the problems with eyewitness identification, when it comes to lineups, “The majority of jurisdictions are simply sticking with what they have always done.”

After a string of high-profile criminal justice scandals, the state of California assembled a blue ribbon panel of former judges and prosecutors, criminologists, and defense attorneys to recommend reforms to guard against wrongful convictions. One of the key suggestions was to change the way the state’s police agencies conduct lineups. The reform proposals were twice passed by the state legislature, but after heavy lobbying from the state’s district attorneys and police organizations, they were twice vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Reform prospects took another hit in 2006 when an Illinois study of 700 eyewitness identifications claimed that double-blind, sequential lineups (the type recommended by reformers) produced more errors than lineups where a police officer conducting the lineup knows which person is guilty. The problem is that the study was conducted by Sheri Mecklenburg, general counsel for the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, an agency long opposed to changing old police procedures.

Mecklenburg’s report was widely derided by psychologists and criminologists for its lack of academic rigor and biased methodology. The critics’ complaints are too numerous too recount here, but the Mecklenburg report’s most egregious error was that it calculated a witness’s selection of the police suspect as a “correct” identification. Thus the report counted every Illinois DNA exoneration as a “correct” identification. That’s a considerable oversight, given that the reason the Illinois legislature commissioned the report in the first place was as a response to the state’s high-profile string of wrongful convictions. T

he Mecklenburg Report’s main effect was to slow the growing momentum for reforming the way eyewitness testimony is solicited and used in courtrooms. Though it has since been largely discredited, the damage was done. Perhaps the renewed media interest in eyewitness testimony will prompt lawmakers around the country to revisit the issue. There’s no question that witnesses are an important part of the criminal justice system. But there’s also no debating that when used improperly—as it often is—eyewitness testimony can do an incredible amount of damage.

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 along with background materials.