Courtroom Testimony By Psychologists On Eyewitness Identification Issues Criminology Essay

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Usually, the role of the psychologist is to give testimony against the accuracy of eyewitness accounts to discredit it in the eyes of the jury.

This is backed up by research on the limitations of human perception and memory, and done regardless of the importance such witness may have to the case in question.

Eyewitness testimony: base rates

During the 1970s, trials by jury were quite rare.

In fact, in 1977, in the State of California there were 145,500 criminal arrests.

Out of these about 25, 000 reached superior courts, with 21, 000 resulting in conviction.

However, only 2,100 were tried in front of a jury. (California Bureau of Criminal Statistics in Ebbesen & Konecni, 1982)

Eyewitness-identification testimony, with at least one witness or some physical evidence, which linked the arrested to the crime, was only heard in 100 of these trials by jury cases. ( Loh, 1981)

Eyewitness testimony: wrongful convictions

Psychologists often argue in favour of eyewitness testimonies as these can avoid the conviction of innocent persons. (Loftus, 1983a, 1983b; Wells, 1978)

In fact, only 1% of perpetrators were imprisoned based on wrongful eyewitness-identification testimonies.

Therefore, it follows that if 100 were sentenced in 1977 by juries who had heard the eyewitness testimonies, only 1 person in every 3 years were unjustly condemned because of inaccurate eyewitness testimonies. (McCloskey & Egeth, 1983b)

There are various reasons why testimonies by psychologists is justified:

Only about 50% of crimes are reported to the police. (Greenberg, Wilson, Mills, 1982)

70% of the offenders of reported crimes are never caught and arrested.

85% of charges of reported crimes are dismissed, dropped, or changed to misconduct. (Ebbesen & Konecni, 1982)

Only 1.5% of the arrested are imprisoned. (Wilson, 1983)

Juvenile offenders get "free" crimes such as warnings. (Konecni & Ebbesen, 1982a)

Therefore, psychologist testimony can be justified because one conviction in 3 years is too many when seen in conjunction with the problems mentioned above.

However according to McCloskey & Egeth, (1983b) and Rembar (1980) one conviction in 3 years is "acceptable risk" since no criminal justice system is perfect.

If juries become sceptic towards eye witness testimonies due to psychologists' opinions about the inaccuracies of eyewitness identification, convictions of the innocent will decrease but also those of the guilty.

Psychological Testimony: Incentives

Psychologists'' testimony is valuable for various criteria:

Ethical objectives (increasing justice, fairness, & equity).

Group professional objectives (increasing reputation of psychology).

Personal objectives (individual gain).

Therefore, when debating whether such expert testimonies are needed in a particular case these criteria should be considered.

Personal objectives may be achieved by:

"Basic" memory or perception research programmes being transformed into "applied" research programmes.

"Applied" research programmes leading to the granting of funds and the publication of articles.

The results of research of programmes, the granting of funds and the publication of articles leading to the credentials of the psychologist as an expert.

This results in the psychologist being hired as an expert testimony in court, and to the publication of articles.

External Validity of the Eyewitness-Identification research and the Frye Test

Until 1986, eyewitness identification research was all based on simulations and could not be validated for real life trails, defendants, and crimes. (Loh, 1981)

Since all experiments tend to focus on a sample, a stimulus, a task, a method, or a particular measure only, they could not be used for generalisations.

For psychological testimony to be admitted in court, the expert and the testimony must pass four tests, discussed in Amaral. Expert testimony is admissible only when:

It is based on scientific evidence that has gained acceptance in its relevant field.

The witness is in fact an expert and is accepted as such by the trial court.

The jury can receive "appreciable help" from such testimony.

When it serves to inform the court [and jury] about affairs not within the full understanding of the average person [1] .

The Frye Test:

Explains that scientific research presented in court must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the field in which it belongs, to be admitted in court [2] .

The research on expert testimony on eyewitness identification does not pass this test because it is obvious.

This should encourage experts to think twice before testifying.

What is to be done?

There are 6 measures that could be taken to try to deal with this issue.

This first and simplest is to do nothing.

For testimonies on eyewitness identification not to be held, until psychologists are sure that the scientific results are accurate.

However if the experts relied on findings they would never testify as these could never be accurate enough.

There is no solid scientific research that can validate this measure.

In the end it is people's lives there we are dealing with, and we should not use dubious methods.

Furthermore, experts may think that their maturity in the subject is a valid reason for testifying in court but this does not mean that psychology, as a whole is ready to hit the courtroom.

The second method is "Amicus-Briefs."

Meaning friend of the court.

Only the recognised authorities are able to give their opinion.

Others can only file a brief on behalf of the party-of-action.

Seeing that there is no concrete evidence that this works, this method could most likely fail as it could result in a conflict between the panoply of experts.

The third solution is "concordance of experts."

When experts come together because they are on same grounds of study.

This may be seen as a solution to strengthen their strategy, but in actual fact, this does not mean that there is strong evidence.

As a result, their concordance may proof useless.

The fourth solution is "staged crimes."

Crimes that are staged for experimental use.

These try to be as realistic as possible instead of focusing on the method, subject, task, experimental design ...etc...

But even than everything has to be planned out;

How do you carry this type of experiment out?

What are the components of the experiment?

What are the factors?

If these are not known, than a successful experiment cannot be carried out.

The fifth solution is "special purpose experiments."

Used as a way to increase external validity of simulation.

Very small scale and precise specific studies.

Every case is different, so results cannot be generalised unless there is a massive and systematic data collection.

This gives rise to ethical concerns as hired psychologists may be biased towards defense, since they are being paid by it.

The sixth and last solution is "Archival Research."

The most promising solution but it also has the most painstakingly long process.

It is basically the coding of information and the filtering of cases and prosecutor files to get a general overview of the criminal justice system.

Everything can be analysed and used to figure out how to act accordingly and bring the best overall results.

This type of analysis is a gathering of data to form a total quantity rather than focusing on one issue.

It compares the different methods used in courts and all their outcomes.

It is not necessarily specific to eyewitness identification but studies it in a broader context.

This can reveal either in favour or against eyewitness testimony identification.