An article in the
on Wednesday explores how eyewitnesses often confidently recount inaccurate details surrounding emotional or traumatic events and how practices should be adopted to arm jurors with this information in criminal trials.
Using the example of the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in January 1986, Cognitive Psychologist Ulric Neisser surveyed 108 of his students at Emory University the day after the event. The survey included questions about the circumstances surrounding the event; their whereabouts, who they were with and what they were doing. In 1988, he gave the same students the same questionnaire again. This time, many responses were different. In fact, some students had different answers for all of the questions the second time around. Despite giving conflicting answers the second time, however, most of the students said they were highly confident in the accuracy of their responses.
Psychologist Elizabeth Phelps concluded in a 2011 study that, when an event is particularly exciting or traumatic, the memory is seared into the brain, often at the expense of the peripheral details. The focus of the witness’ memory is upon the action which took place and not upon the circumstances under which it took place. The article notes that this is problematic, especially when we rely so heavily upon eyewitness testimony in criminal cases. It is difficult for a jury to refute what a witness claims to have seen or heard. But as Phelps’ study showed, just because witnesses are confident about their version of events does not mean their accounts are accurate.
Phelps recently sat in on a committee for the National Academy of Sciences to make recommendations about eyewitness testimony in trials. The committee came up with suggestions to bring current procedures in line with these new findings, including “blinded” eyewitness identification, standardized witness instructions, police training in vision and memory research as it relates to eyewitness testimony, videotaped identification and expert testimony about the issues surrounding eyewitness reliability. If these recommendations are adopted, the role of an eyewitness in a criminal trial may become less seminal and fewer mistakes could be made when it comes time to choosing a verdict.