Freeze! Your memory, that is

Apparently, scientists have developed a new tool to “freeze” crime scene memories.

The tool – a self-administered interview applied by witnesses at crime scenes – combats natural memory decay by using the latest research in cognitive psychology techniques. It ‘freezes’ images and details of crime scenes and perpetrators in the minds of witnesses, particularly small and seemingly insignificant details that provide major leads for detectives that turn out to be crucial in solving cases.

While this might have utility in memorizing details from the scene itself, I have to question its usefulness in remembering descriptions of perpetrators. Part of the problem with eyewitness identification testimony (and partly why experts are starting to be used) is eyewitness confidence. Studies have shown that there is very little correlation between eyewitness confidence and accuracy. I fear that this tool might serve to cement incorrect recollections of the perpetrator.

It is a tool that seems to work, though:

Tests at simulated crimes scenes were remarkable with witnesses using the tool recalling forensically relevant information 42 percent more accurate than other witnesses who were simply asked to ‘report as much as you can remember’. The tests also revealed the witnesses using the self-administered interview (SAI) were 44 percent more correct with details about people – therefore, possible suspects – who had been involved in the event.

In another test there was a delay of seven days between witnessing the event and providing a full account. Half the participants completed self-administered interviews after witnessing the event while the other participants simply gave their name and contact details – as normally happens to a large number of witnesses at crime incidents. Scientists tested the group after seven days and found participants who had completed the SAI were still reporting almost 30 per cent more correct details than other witnesses.

That’s just staggering. This goes to show that in every case we have involving eyewitness testimony, we must explore any and all challenges to its reliability and perhaps retain an expert. This cannot be ignored any more in practice. For the CT practitioner, Lisa Steele’s Law Review article at 25 Quinnipiac L. Rev. 799 is very helpful (thanks to JC).

2 thoughts on “Freeze! Your memory, that is

  1. D.E.LAWSON

    AS I am sure you are aware the least reliable /mitigating testomony in a court case is that of of the “Eye-Witness” :WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS I

    Reading Assignments for
    Eyewitness Identification

    I. INTERDISCIPLINARY READING

    1. For an understanding of how memory works and some of the factors that cause fallibility of eyewitness identifications, read the following article:

    Turtle, Lindsay and Wells, Best Practices for Eyewitness Evidence Procedures: New Ideas for the Oldest Way to Solve a Case (2003)

    I also strongly recommend that you read the following article for a more complete, in-depth analysis of eyewitness identification: Wells, Malpass, Lindsay, Fisher, Turtle and Fulero, From the Lab to the Police Station: A Successful Application of Eyewitness Research (2000)

    Other articles that you may want to peruse include:

    Wells & Olson, Eyewitness Testimony (2003) (fairly in-depth review of research)

    Wells, Small, Penrod, Malpass, Fulero and Brimacombe, Eyewitness Identification Procedures: Recommendations for Lineups and Photospreads (1998) (in-depth analysis of research and discussion of role of eyewitness errors in innocence cases)

    Wells & Loftus, Eyewitness Memory for People and Events (chapter 2003) (interesting analysis of memory, innocence case study)

    Technical Working Group on Eyewitness Evidence, Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement (1999) (Fairly comprehensive U.S. Department of Justice report focusing on how to avoid misidentifications)

    2. If you are not familiar with the Ronald Cotton case, see the Frontline story “What Jennifer Saw”. You will be able to view the actual photos and parts of the lineup that led to the wrongful conviction of Ronald Cotton.

    3. As much of the reading demonstrates, misplaced confidence by eyewitnesses is a significant cause of wrongful convictions. The following article, which is highly recommended, explores this issue: Doyle No Confidence: A Step Toward Accuracy in Eyewitness Trials (The Champion, Jan/Feb. 1998)

    4. For additional articles and sample line-ups and show-ups, see Gary Wells’ website and the website of the Eyewitness Identification Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at El Paso. Take a look at this good example of bad and good lineups.

    II. THE LAW

    United States Supreme Court Cases

    The United States Supreme Court first pointed to the many weaknesses of lineups conducted by the police in the case of United States v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218 (1967), as a result of which the Court concluded that a defendant who was going to be subjected to an in-person confrontation with an identification witness was entitled to the assistance of counsel for the purpose of observing the fairness, or lack of it, of the procedure.

    In 1972, in Kirby v. Illinois, 406 U.S. 682 (1972), the Court’s majority held that the Wade right-to-counsel applied only to those confrontations which occur after the formal judicial adjudicatory process against a person has already commenced. Since most lineups occur fairly early in the process, soon after a person has been arrested, the Kirby case deprived the overwhelming majority of suspects of this Wade-created right of counsel.

    In Manson v. Brathwaite, 432 U.S. 98 (1977) the Supreme Court held that “reliability” of an eyewitness identification is the linchpin in determining the admissibility of identification testimony.” Factors to be considered in weighing the reliability were identified in Neil v. Biggers, 409 U.S. 188 (1972) and were said to include: the opportunity of the witness to view the criminal at the time of the crime; the degree of attention that the witness devoted to the criminal; the degree to which the description of the criminal as initially reported by the witness to the police matched the eventual in-person identification at the lineup; the level of certainty that the witness exhibited in making an identification; and the length of time that had elapsed between the crime and the identification of the suspect by the witness.

    In light of what we now know about eyewitness identification, do you believe the Court reached the right result? Why or why not?

    Admissibility of Expert Testimony on Eyewitness Identification

    Jurisdictions are split on whether and under what circumstances expert testimony on the reliability and fallibility of eyewitness identification is admissible. For a partial collection of state cases on admissibility of expert testimony, click here. Do you think such testimony should be admissible? What are the reasons to allow experts to testify? What reasons suggest that they should not be allowed to testify? For a prosecutor’s perspective, see Brown, A Tale of Discretion: Eyewitness Identification And Expert Testimony After People v. Lee.

    The Missouri Supreme Court has addressed the admissibility of expert testimony regarding eyewitness identification in State v. Lawhorn. Are you persuaded by the Court’s analysis?

    However having been trinrd in cognative theory/interviewing a savvy Invectigator ,Police/Correction officer can ellict a quality & accurate response based on ellicting the proper /correct personal human emotion during the interview/interogation process ( Some years ago I was sent by the D.O.C. to a semmanair based on this process) Which I found to be a very pragmatic & logical methodology for elicting true & accurate factual statements from witnesses,victimems & suspects! basically we as humans tend to be ! thought/opinion driven or Felling/emotionally driven (There are a couple of sub categories from both , but the basic premise is based upon gearing your questions & deriving their testimony from their initial response from your questions :I may ask what did you think when you say the suspect? what brought them to your attention?? the witness may seem un sure or perplexed…Change the line of questioning to: How did you feel when you first noticed the suspect? Was there something in his ,demeanor ,look or dress that made you feel suspicious?,what? Why? Of course this is a very basic adaptation & it boils down to emotios & convictions & getting into peoples heads!!& it is not as definitive as what this study is portraying ,but the fact of the matter it does produce some tangible results!! well that’s my feeling and I’m sticking to it!! Not for nothin the next time you ask a co worker who they “think” is going to win next weeks case of the week & they scratch their head..Ask how they ‘feel” about a verdict!!

    Reply
  2. chiz

    Good post. You make some great points that most people do not fully understand.

    “While this might have utility in memorizing details from the scene itself, I have to question its usefulness in remembering descriptions of perpetrators. Part of the problem with eyewitness identification testimony (and partly why experts are starting to be used) is eyewitness confidence. Studies have shown that there is very little correlation between eyewitness confidence and accuracy. I fear that this tool might serve to cement incorrect recollections of the perpetrator.”

    I like how you explained that. Very helpful. Thanks.

    Reply

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