Aim: What factors can influence eyewitness testimony? This lesson is part of a unit examining the probative value of different types of evidence.
Objectives: Students will be able to:
1) discuss the limitations of eyewitness accounts
2) explain factors that can influence visual memory
Show students the video, “Gorilla in Our Midst, ” at http://viscog.beckman.illinois.edu/flashmovie/15.php
Preface the screening by telling students that eyewitnesses cannot reliably process qualitative and quantitative information simulateneously — and this plays a big role in shaping eyewitness testimony. To test this, ask students to focus on a qualitative characteristic in the video — i.e. observe only the folks in white T-shirts as they pass the basketball — and try to count the number of times they pass the ball in 30 seconds (quantitative observation). Offer a prize to the student who comes closest to the actual number. Afterwards, ask “Who saw the gorilla?” Discuss why so many students missed this crucial detail.
Content of the Lesson:
During the discussion above, have a student enter the room and briefly disrupt the lesson — and then quickly exit.
Ask students to write a brief description of the incident and to describe the perpetrator. As they write their descriptions, ask leading questions, such as “What color was his watchband?” (He wasn’t wearing a watch.) “What was in his left hand?” (Nothing.) Then have students read their descriptions. How many describe the nonexistant watch, or an object in the perp’s left hand?
Screen the 60 minutes segment, “Eyewitness: How Accurate is Visual Memory?”
“Aired March 8, 2009, and hosted by Leslie Stahl, “60 Minutes” reports growing evidence that eyewitness testimony is much more unreliable than we understand it to be. The story featured Ronald Cotton, wrongly convicted in 1984 for rape and sentenced to life and 50 years after eyewitness testimony by the woman victim, Jennifer Thompson. Jennifer was the ideal eyewitness, someone who was alert and articulate and who was self-possessed through her ordeal and vowed to memorize every feature and aspect of her attacker so that she could correctly identify him afterward to help police convict the right person. The police ended up arresting Ronald, whose features were similar to the drawing.
“While the evidence against him was only circumstantial, the strength of Jennifer’s identification of him in her court testimony carried great weight with the jury. Jennifer’s honesty and the strength of her resolve to do right is impressive throughout the episode as she relates how convinced she was for years that she had identified the right person. She tells how her belief was unshakable even to the point that when she later saw another man in a second trial, Bobby Poole, who was her actual attacker, she failed to recognize him although he looked very similar to her drawing and Ronald Cotton.
“Stahl explores with experts how Jennifer could have been so wrong after trying so hard to identify the right person. Experts now know that human memory is fragile, malleable, easily contaminated and often unreliable. The police often use the wrong procedure in presenting witnesses with photo line-ups of multiple individuals. When the actual perpetrator is not in any of the photos, people will wrongly identify the person who they feel most closely resembles the perpetrator, because they just assume that the guilty party is included in the line-up. Once the identification is made, memory will focus upon that person and transform him or her into the guilty party in the mind of the witness, particularly when the selection of the witness is reinforced by some indication by a person of authority to them that they have acted correctly. So, even though Ronald Cotton recognized Bobby Poole in prison as the actual perpetrator of her rape based upon her composite drawing; Jennifer did not later recognize him in court, even face-to-face.
“Leslie Stahl questions in the course of this episode if eyewitness testimony should ever be trusted. That is a valid question when police have only imperfect eyewitness testimony to convict individuals of serious crimes. Police were once unaware of the fragility of human memory, but can no longer claim ignorance of proper procedures and the general inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony.” (http://richardwanke.com/2009/03/13/60-minutes-shows-unreliability-of-eyewitness-testimony/)
Afterwards, summarize and discuss the issues raised by the video segments.