Testifying in Court

Testifying in Court Eyewitnesses can be inaccurate, but that’s only part of the problem. The other part is that their testimony is not easy to evaluate. To examine how juries view eyewit- ness testimony, Gary Wells, Rod Lindsay, and others conducted a series of early studies in which they staged the theft of a calculator in the presence of unsus- pecting research participants who were later cross-examined after trying to pick the culprit from a photo spread. Other participants, who served as mock jurors, observed the questioning and judged the witnesses. Overall, the jurors overestimated how accurate the eyewitnesses were and could not distinguish between witnesses whose identifications were correct and those whose identifications were incorrect.

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There appear to be two problems. First, people do not know about many aspects of human perception and memory through common sense. Brian Cutler and others (1988) found that mock jurors were not particularly sensitive to the effects of lineup instructions, weapon focus, and certain other aspects of an eyewit- nessing situation, such as the cross-race bias, in evaluating the testimony of an eyewitness. Peo- ple are knowledgeable about some factors but not others. The second problem is that people tend to base their judgments of an eyewitness largely on how confident that witness is, a factor that is only modestly predictive of accuracy. This statement may seem sur- prising, but studies have shown that the witness who declares “I am absolutely certain” is not necessarily more likely to be right than the one who appears less certain.

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