The death of the eye witness

Image courtesy of JASON MORRISON

June Siler and Robert Wilson

In 1997, before a jury of her peers, June Siler identified Robert Wilson as the man who had violently mugged her.

Of her testimony, the judge commented that she was the most solid, positive, outstanding victim witness ever seen.

Her eyewitness account of the events, and positive identification of Robert Wilson, served him up a 30 year prison term.

She was wrong.

Side note: I’ve stepped aside from our recent thread to write this up as it’s such an interesting development.

The problem with memory

Memory, we know, is fraught with problems. Far from being accurate footage of events, we know that it’s a reconstructive process, evolving over time, and being affected by a number of factors so that we exclude correct information and include incorrect information.

No doubt you’ve been in disagreements yourself where you and someone else were both adamant that what you saw was correct, and what they saw was wrong. And even both been wrong.

The power of the eyewitness testimony has been given such accord that it has, for years, overridden what psychologists have been saying about the fallibility of memory. And don’t think badly of June Siler. You and I are subject to the same frailties, and make exactly the same mistakes, even if there might be less riding on them.

And sometimes it doesn’t matter.

For the nearly 10 years that Robert Wilson spent in prison, it does.

A change in how it’s done

Writing for The Chicago Tribune in December 2006, Maurice Possley ran the headline, “I have to make it right” in reference to June’s comment once she discovered how wrong she was. Wilson was freed. And there have been many others, too, leading to a major rethink in the policy on eyewitness testimony.

In a decision that will no doubt send ripples through different legal communities, both in the US and abroad, the New Jersey Supreme Court has completely reworked how they handle eyewitness testimony. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner states in The New York Times that the point of the ruling is to “educate jurors about factors that can lead to misidentifications”.

While it’s not about to dismiss eyewitnesses as a part of the legal process, the court is aiming to include factors that judges should consider, when they evaluate the reliability of an eyewitness identification. Things to consider include:

  • whether a weapon was visible in a crime of short duration
  • the length of time long the witness had to observe the event
  • how close the witness was to the suspect
  • whether the witness was affected by substances
  • whether the witness was identifying someone of a different race
  • the time elapsed between the crime and the identification

From a psychological perspective, this is good news, and accurately reflects research on some fundamental psychological weaknesses we have.

Here’s why

Many of us think our memories are pretty good, but there is a slew of research to show otherwise. We attend to information poorly, we miss crucial details, we fill in gaps with incorrect material, we’re grossly biased in a number of ways, we remember themes and emotions more than details and facts, and on it goes.

Think about the previous list like this:

  • Whether a weapon was visible in a crime of short duration. Attention will be drawn to the most salient feature, to the exclusion of others, such as faces. Think of how a magician gets you to focus on something obvious and salient and you miss the bit you really need to see. Alternatively, if the crime was short, you might not have time to see a weapon and so the investigation, charges faced, and sentence meted out, can be significantly different.
  • The length of time long the witness had to observe the event. The shorter the event, the less processing time you have to pay attention to the important features of the event and convert them to memories.
  • How close the witness was to the suspect. Our focal vision, or where our vision is sharpest, covers only a very small area. At a distance, it’s worse, so the bulk of our visual field is made up of peripheral vision and is consequently lacking in detail. Would you trust yourself to identify someone?
  • Whether the witness was affected by substances. Substances affect recall. Some great old studies show the effects of memorizing material under the influence of substances. Best way to recall the information is to be in the same state as at time of learning – not usually appropriate in a courtroom giving evidence. However, substances can, in the first instance, interfere with both our perception of events and transfer from short-term into long-term memories.
  • Whether the witness was identifying someone of a different race. We’re much, much better at identifying people of our own race than other races. When we say of another race that they all look the same, it’s more true than we think. Note that June Siler and Robert Wilson are different races.
  • The time elapsed between the crime and the identification. Memories decay over time, and are also subject to change, through factors such as stress, questioning, suggestion and re-telling, as well as our backgrounds and all the influences brought to bear on us.

In addition, there’s some fascinating work on inattentional blindness, where you really think you ought to see what’s right in front of you but, astonishingly, don’t. While this might conveniently explain why men can’t seem to find the keys that really are in the drawer where they left them (or any one of a thousand other stories…), there are also major implications for eyewitness testimony.

For more on inattentional blindness, check out the original test by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris.

So here’s the take home bit

It’s likely that other courts will follow this decision, and there’s plenty of evidence to support the change.

Of course, it also means that when you’re holding court at home, well, he really didn’t see the keys, did he…

And we can all hold many wrong beliefs about the way things happened, even if they happened to us… and understand the fallibilities of memory and attention.

Over time, our memories change, so can you really be sure that what you thought you saw, or heard, is really what happened? Or have you just made it all up?

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Inattentional blindness

Love to hear what you have to say. What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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3 Responses to The death of the eye witness

  1. Beulah says:

    The trouble is that thoughts aren’t real… they are a commentary on what we see.
    Which is why it is important that justice be done as soon as pos at a grass roots level. By the time witnesses regurgitate the story to friends and everyone, it has gotten slanted…

    • HI Beulah

      You’re right – everyone has a slant, and there’s some great work on various biases we all have if you want to look. And the regurgitation issue just adds compolexity – see the famous old experiment Bartlett’s serial reproduction.


  2. Pingback: How to create a false memory – in someone else’s head | Bite sized brains

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