randwolf (randwolf) wrote,

True Witness

I commend to the attention of all the book True Witness, by James M. Doyle (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2005). The book lays out the current status of scientific research on the reliability of eyewitness evidence and the efforts to make changes in the judicial system to reduce the rate of false convictions. In short summary:
  1. The memory of many eyewitnesses is as fragile and unreliable as any other piece of crime scene evidence and can be altered by careless evidence gathering. The misidentification of Jennifer Thompson's rapist is cited as a particularly clear-cut example. See Jennifer Thompson's op-ed piece and the summary of the Frontline show on the case.
  2. The testimony of a confident eyewitness who makes an incorrect identification is enormously persuasive to juries.
  3. The traditional tools of a defense attorney, cross-examination of the witness and contradictory circumstantial evidence, are often not persuasive against a confident eyewitness who is wrong.
  4. The judicial system is not very good at preserving the memories of eyewitnesses or the measures of its reliability.
  5. Some changes in police procedures can improve the quality of gathered eyewitness evidence. It is not clear, however, how much error will remain, indeed the amount of error has not been carefully studied.
  6. There is some effort to get these changes adopted; it has gone furthest in New Jersey and North Carolina. There are, however, many jurisdictions where these changes have not been adopted.
  7. With the best will in the world, eyewitness evidence will never be certain.
The book as a whole is a powerful lesson in human fallibility. Most memories simply aren't what we imagine them to be; human memory is a slippery thing. For me, this enormously weakens the endless political arguments based on the idea of the perfection of individual perceptions. In the face of human fallibility, it seems plain that doing justice involves demands compassion in the treatment of people we believe are criminals. For we have most excellent and well-documented evidence that no justice system we build will be perfect.

"Of the first 77 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence, 65 resulted from witness error."

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