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Discuss the psychological factors that can lead to a wrongful conviction

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 1855 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The oxford English dictionary describes miscarriage of justice as “a failure of a court or judicial system to attain the ends of justice, esp. one that results in the conviction of an innocent person.” However this matter covers such a wide range of issues, this essay will focus on just one topic, though it is only a single topic its findings are enormous, and have exonerated many convicted individuals.

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Eye witnesses are vital in solving any case, and understanding what happened at the scene of the crime. Eye witnesses can make a profound influence and effect on the jury, and the jury are frequently allocated the responsibility of deciding the credibility of the witness and making judgements about their statements. Nevertheless, what if the statement that the witness has given is untrue, in a court lying under oath is called perjury, however eye witnesses usually don’t make false statements deliberately. Remembering something is an active process, therefore occasionally errors occur, leading to misidentification. Therefore it is of the upmost importance, that the eyewitnesses memory is treated the same as a crime scene, so it will not be altered.

“Misidentifications are the leading factor in wrongful convictions

Eyewitness misidentifications contributed to over 75% of the more than 220 wrongful convictions in the United States overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence.”(Theinnocenceproject.org). It was found in the initial forty cases, a single person managed to misidentify five witnesses, and 17.5% identified the wrong person, in one or more cases (Wells et al 1998). This finding, with such strong statistical evidence is startling, as the legal system has a vast amount of safeguarding to prevent a defendant of an unjust conviction due to mistaken identity; however there seems to be no shortfall of these cases (Kapardis 2010). Psychology can help to understand, and hopefully minimize these wrongful convictions.

Loftus 2005 found that “the misinformation effect refers to the impairment in memory for the past that arises after exposure to misleading information.” Loftus’s original (1974) study about the car crash is a great example of this. In this study participants watched a film of a car crash happening. Afterward the participants were asked to calculate approximately how fast they thought the cars were going when different words, for example; the participants who were asked “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” approximated the cars speed to be higher than the participants who were asked “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?”. (Loftus 1974). Further to this the participant who were asked the first question with the word “smashed” were more prone to saying they saw broken glass, than those asked the second question were the word “hit” was used. In the second part of the research Loftus and Zamni (1975) asked the participants a different set of questions. When the question asked was “Did you see the broken headlight?” more participants answered “yes they did see a broken headlight” than when the participants were asked, “Did you see a broken headlight?”. This type of source attribution, or leading questions, is the main explanation of misinformation effect. The participants did not really see a broken headlight, but by phrasing the words into a leading question that suggested they did see a broken headlight, made the participant really think that they saw one. For this reason in cases where the witness is questioned psychology has shown how suggestible a witnesses mind is and how miscarriages of justice can take place so easily through misinformation and leading questions, making the witnesses believe they saw things they actually didn’t. Additionally Loftus next experiment, Loftus, Miller and Burns (1978) found that deceptive or confusing information can mislead the witness in questioning. For example in this research the participants were shown a picture of a car at a stop sign, some participants were then told it was a yield sign. When the participants were questioned on whether they saw a stop or a yield sign, a greater number of participants reported seeing the yield sign, which was actually the wrong sign. Now the new memory is coexisting with the old, and is subject to access competition. Furthermore it has been shown that schemas are used in everyday context, as schemas affect everyday things you see. For example Cohen (1981) described women in a videotape as either a waitress or a librarian, and showed her doing a variety of things. When participants were later asked a series of questions, such as ‘What was she drinking?’ they tended to remember those features which were consistent with their stereotype. Schemas can also affect recall, this can have many implications for things such as eye witness testimony, as when people try and recall what they witnessed, and their recall is likely to be affected by previous experience.

The case of George Barry, who allegedly murdered TV presenter Jill Dando, is one of the most controversial cases in recent history. He was convicted of her murder on the 21st July 2001. After 7 years of unjust prison time, Barry George, was acquitted on 1st August 2008. In 2007 Georges appeal began, and he was acquitted due to a number of reasons, but when looking specifically at eye witness testimony, one of the witnesses had identified him being at the scene of the crime four hours before the crime took place, and other witnesses, thought they may have seen him on the street a couple hours before, yet these witnesses could not pick Barry George out in a identity parade. Further to this information two neighbours who definitely saw the murder just after the shooting could not correctly identify George in an identification parade. Additionally, one of the main forms of evidence was gunshot residue found in Georges coat pocket a year after the crime. Researchers have recently been looking at crimes that involve weapons, and although some researchers suggest that violent weapons cause arousal, and actually benefit memory (Yuille and Cartwright 1986 in Towl and Creighton) more recent evidence has shown that crimes and incidents that do involve weapons are more likely have a negative effect on the eye witnesses account. Loftus et al (1987) called this phenomenon the “Weapons effect”, it occurs when there is a weapon present at the scene of the crime, and the weapon adversely effects the recall of the witness, to be able to describe in detail certain parts of their account, such what the perpetrator looked like, or what clothes he or she may have been wearing. This is because the witness was focused on the weapon and not the rest of the scene (Loftus et al 1987). An explanation of this could be dues to the high levels of stress the witness may be feeling at the time, and reduces their attention ability (Loftus 1980). Deffenbacher (2004 in Towl& Crighton 2010) found that increased stress levels of the witness may reduce the accuracy and recall the eye witness can remember.

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Another Case in which a man was wrongly convicted was the case of Johnny Briscoe, who served a lengthy 23 years of a 45 year sentence, till the innocence project brought justice to him. Briscoe was convicted of “Forcible rape, sodomy, burglary, robbery, stealing, armed criminal action”, all of which he wrongly convicted for. The victim spent over an hour with the offender who claimed his name was Johnny Briscoe while he raped, and stole from her. Yet the victim still pointed the real Johnny Briscoe from both a photo and real line up. She did not identify the man who really abused her, the man claiming to be Briscoe. However this was an unjust situation, as the real Briscoe was the only man in the line up wearing an orange jumpsuit. Later evidence was found that freed Briscoe from his sentence, and he was wrongly accused. The fact that Briscoe was in an orange jumpsuit could lead to destructive updating, as Loftus (1979) suggests that misleading information can completely modify the memory of the actual event. In this case Briscoe’s orange jumpsuit presents him as guilty despite the fact he hadn’t been convicted of a crime. Therefore the victim only saw the orange jumpsuit and not the innocent man in it.

However there are other ways in which witnesses can be mislead, such as memory conformity. This can happen when witnesses discuss with other witnesses of people what had happened at the scene of the incident. The information that each witness may have seen could be different, due to errors in memory, or different things the witness may have noticed, and a witness may conform their own recall due to what they have heard others talking about. This instance can be shown in the case of the Oklahoma bomber, where three witnesses thought they saw two men hiring a truck; however the story developed that there might have only been one man, and the time it took for the police searching for the second man was unnecessary. Memmon & Wrights (1999) study is a perfect example of memory conformity. The participants were split into two groups, one saw a film in which a student went to return a book, opened the drawer and took £10 out of a wallet in the drawer, and left. The other participants just saw the girl open the drawer and see the wallet but then throw a note in the bin and leave, they did not see her take any money. Both groups of participants saw the same film, just at different angles. However, when the participants were left to discuss what they had seen, 71% of the witnesses reported information that they did not see, but just heard about from their co-witnesses. Moreover 60% of the participants who did not see the girl take the £10 note out of the wallet, believed that she was guilty and had committed a crime. Gabbert et al (2003) found that older witnesses were more likely to conform than younger witnesses. Research by Brimacombe et al (1997) Backs up Gabberts research, in their research, where young and old participants have to recall their memories of a crime scene they saw a video of, older witnesses were less accurate than younger adults.

In conclusion all of the topics mentioned in this essay are just a few samples of how psychology can affect miscarriage of justice. In reality there are a vast number of reasons miscarriage of justice takes place, as Zander quotes (in Williams 2004) “The common law system has never made the search for the truth, its highest aim.” They are just looking for a suitable conviction. Eye witness testimony is an extremely important fact in convicting criminals, however the above cases are just two of many, and it is not just the worrying fact that they did occur, but that they indicate that many other people are convicted of crimes unjustly.


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