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EYEwitness or LIEwitness?

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

In 1994, Paul Simmons was stabbed to death. Two eyewitnesses identified Jermaine Arrington and he was convicted. Despite two people identifying him, Arrington was innocent and he served 15 years in prison before being exonerated. Sadly, eyewitness memory is not always accurate, and eyewitness misidentifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Over the past several decades, psycholegal researchers have investigated how to improve eyewitness identifications. However, there is still much to learn about the influence of eyewitness (mis)identifications in the legal process.

Two factors that have not been fully examined are the type and quantity of witnesses. In terms of type of witness, there might be a difference between victims (who are directly involved in the event) and bystanders (who are watching the event occur). Research has not experimentally examined the difference between these types of witnesses and there are reasons to think a victim eyewitness might be better (e.g., they are closer to the event) or worse (e.g., they are more emotional) than a bystander. In terms of quantity, more witnesses who agree might be better; however, in the Arrington case, two witnesses agreed – but it was the wrong person!

Who do you believe? Assessing student and community member perceptions of bystander and victim witnesses examines how potential jurors evaluate the type and quantity of witnesses. Jones (2020) conducted two studies that manipulated quality of identification. Study 1 had one identification from either a victim or a bystander. Study 2 had two identifications, one from a victim and one from a bystander.

When there was one identification, participants were able to distinguish between the high quality and low quality identification. Participants had higher judgments of guilt, perceived accuracy, and eyewitness credibility when the identification was high quality. The type of witness (victim or bystander) did not matter. However, when there were two identifications, jurors were less sensitive to the quality of identification.

Other research has demonstrated that community member jurors make different decisions than student jurors in certain situations. Jones (2020) found that eyewitness identifications may be one of these situations where sample (i.e., community members vs. students) matters. Community members were more likely to trust witnesses and convict the defendant than students. And students appeared to be better able to evaluate the quality of identifications when there is more than one witness.

Thus, the type of witness does not appear to influence juror perceptions very much, but the number of witnesses does (particularly for community members). Whether or not jurors should be influenced by these factors must still be answered. More research must be done (both experimental and field) to fully understand whether there are actual differences in the accuracy of eyewitness identifications based on the type and quantity of witnesses. Overall, it is clear that eyewitness identifications are problematic, particularly because they influence jurors disproportionately compared to their accuracy.

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