As citizens of the United States of America, we believe the U.S. is a very successful country compared to the rest of the world. For the most part, we also trust and respect our complex justice system. If a suspect is proven guilty by the court of law and claims he or she is innocent, we usually have more faith in the court’s decision rather than what the suspect is trying to say. After all, we do want as many criminals as possible behind bars, right? If the crime committed was very disturbing such as murdering a child we become very furious and we want to make sure that someone pays for that. Once the court rules a guilty verdict against a suspect in such a horrible case, we feel safe for another day in our comfortable homes. All thanks to our perfect judicial system another criminal is behind bars.
The U.S. courts do often help protect the rest of society by locking up dangerous people. Unfortunately the system is far from perfect and innocent people receive guilty verdicts. These innocent people are torn away from their families, careers, free life and faced with humiliation. They often face many years or life behind bars and even the death penalty. Such a harsh punishment for the person who did not commit the crime. It is scary to think that anyone of us can fall in to this loop-hole in our judicial system where we can face time in prison even though we are innocent.
How could this happen, how can the court misjudge such life impacting cases and come up with the wrong verdict? Researchers had done many investigations on wrongful arrests, they found that the large majority of arrests were mistaken because eyewitnesses have pointed out the wrong people. Having as many criminals as possible behind bars in today’s system comes with a price, the price of innocent people going to jail too. The emotional victims want someone to pay for the crime, as long as someone gets punished they will feel better. The victim will go home and feel safer, sometimes not realizing that an innocent person is paying a price so the victim can feel cozy.
Many experiments conclude that jurors and law professionals rely a lot on eyewitnesses to come up with a guilty or not guilty verdict. Gary Wells (1998) researched forty special cases. In all forty cases DNA proved that all forty convicted suspects were innocent. In thirty-six of these cases eyewitnesses wrongfully accused the suspects. This is a major flaw with eye witness testimony. This is a crime in itself! First of all we are talking about forty people being wrongfully accused. More than three quarters of them are accused thanks to their «perfect memory» witnesses. This alone proves that eye witness testimonies should not be given as much credit as they are in today’s justice system.
A real life example of the eye witness testimony flaw is the Harris and Adams case. A police officer pulled over a vehicle at night to let the driver know that his headlights were turned off. The driver pulled out a gun and killed the officer. Suspect Harris was found a month later denying that he shot the officer. Harris claimed he picked up a hitch-hiker who was driving the car and the hitch-hiker shot the officer. The second suspect Adams who was the hitch-hiker claimed he was innocent but three witnesses claimed they saw him shoot the officer because Adams had a mustache and long hair which fit in to their description. Although Harris confessed that he stole the car and the loaded handgun, Adams was charged for the murder because three witnesses claimed they saw a description of Adams shooting the officer. Years later, the freed Harris was charged for a different murder and confessed on death row that he also shot the police officer twelve years earlier. Adams was finally released after an innocent twelve year sentence. Three witnesses pointed the finger at the wrong person.
How can three different witnesses point at the wrong person? Human memory is not like video or photo camera that can bring up a clear picture later in time. Our memories are often distorted by our schemas and other factors. If we are missing a piece of the picture when trying to remember something, our mind will replace it with something else. In this situation we will have a skewed memory. It was dark outside when the officer pulled the car over, therefore we can only see parts of the situation. Our mind can fill in those dark spots with other schemas when we try to remember the situation at a future time. The other problem can be the biased questions that police officers and investigators ask the eyewitnesses. For example if the officer has seen the suspect in custody, the officer’s questions to the witness may be biased by the suspect’s true description. Unknowingly, the officer might even make hints as to whether the witness is on the right track for describing a similar description of the suspect.
Another study was done by Patricia Tollestrup, John Turtle, and John Yille. The study focused on how we acquisition or pay attention to a certain scene, how we store that information and how we retrieve it later from our memory. They studied cases where the suspect confessed to the crime. These cases had eyewitness bystanders and eyewitness victims. The bystanders proved to have a more accurate memory of the crime scene than the victims involved. 100% of the bystanders remembered if the suspect had facial hair, only 60% of the crime victims remembered this correctly. Only 48% of the bystanders and 38% of the victims involved remembered the hair color of the suspect. The worse part is that both the bystanders and the victim eyewitnesses chose the right criminal 48% of the time in a lineup. This study shows that eyewitness testimony is very weak. It also shows that if the eyewitness was the victim of the crime, chances are their testimony is even weaker because of many factors that bias their memory. Another major reason why eye witness testimony should not take as much weight as it does today.
Jurors in a court case often don’t realize the imperfections of eye witness testimony. They don’t realize how imperfect our memories can be. If the jurors hear a great deal of confident detail about the crime from the witness, the jurors can easily be convinced by such a testimony. In an unusual event such as a short crime scene, a witness only collects pieces of the scene and later tries to put it altogether in to a story. Another conflict we have with memory is cross-racial identification. We have more difficulty identifying someone of another race other than ours. For example a black witness might have a harder time identifying a white suspect because blacks find it easier to differentiate between blacks. A black witness will have a harder time differentiating between whites the same as whites will have a tough time differentiating between Asians or Hispanics.
Another flaw that sometimes if not often puts innocent people in jail is the confident testimony of a victim that was seriously hurt or violated (Loftus). When this victim says with confidence «this is the guy that did it, I will never forget that face…» it is hard not to discredit their feelings and the fact that they lived through that horrible crime. Therefore it becomes easy to go with their testimony. A huge problem that Elizabeth Loftus talks about is the fact that judges will often not allow an expert to testify to the jury about the flaws of eyewitness testimony. Some judges will allow it, but others will make excuses as to why this expert testimony is not allowed. This leaves the jury uneducated about eyewitness flaws which potentially leads to a wrongful verdict.
When further researching the subject, I was amazed at some of the statistics I read about the inaccuracy of eye witness testimony. This is even if the crime occurred in broad daylight and there were many witnesses. I was also amazed at how much the courts rely on witnesses. Elizabeth Loftus went on to explain that when a judge decides not educate the jury of memory inconsistency of eyewitnesses, the jury for the most part decides the verdict from their «gut feeling». They ignore the balance that needs to be present between physical scientific evidence and witness testimony. The jurors without the simple education rely too heavily on the witness. This leads the jurors to make the wrong decision and possibly convict the wrong person. Another great point that was made by Loftus is the repetition of seeing the accused person. When the victim spends time seeing the person in photos, in lineups, in the courtroom, the suspect even if truly innocent becomes encrypted more and more in the victims memory. This makes it possible that if the victim saw the true criminal he or she probably wont recognize the criminal anymore especially if the victim saw the criminal once for a short time during the crime.
Our ability to remember accurately is not as reliable as we think it is. We are often unaware that our memories change which causes us to change the story from what really happened. We often forget the importance of the factors that can skew our memory and perception. Unfortunately we think factors such as confidence and details are more important and reliable when in fact these factors cause errors in decision making. When a case is made, the court system and the police should not rely so heavily on eye witness testimony, they need to continue to find more evidence in a case even if there are witnesses who sound like they have a good story.
Read some true stories that related to flawed eye witness testimonies and you will see how damaging it can be!