In the courtroom, it is often the testimony of a witness that determines whether an alleged perpetrator will be convicted of a crime. Courtroom testimony from a witness in a civil case can determine how that case is resolved. When crimes such as murder or rape occur (or, in the realm of civil law, when an accident occurs), there are two primary types of evidence: eyewitness accounts and physical evidence. In many cases, the courtroom testimony of the eyewitness is the primary or only evidence that the alleged perpetrator committed the crime or that an accident unfolded in a particular way. Yet, there is reason to believe that eyewitnesses are not always accurate. In the past decade, in cases where prisoners have been released because new DNA evidence has conclusively proved their innocence, mistaken eyewitness identification has been shown to be the most common cause of what we now know were wrongful convictions. In addition, new research on child witnesses and acquittals in several highly publicized child abuse day care cases have raised questions about children’s ability to testify.
What Is Courtroom Testimony?
Courtroom testimony is oral evidence given under oath by a witness in answer to questions posed by attorneys at trial or at a deposition.
Who Gives Testimony?
There are three basic types of witnesses: lay witnesses (or eyewitnesses), character witnesses, and expert witnesses. Lay witnesses are people who perceive an event (by seeing, hearing, smelling, or other sensory perception) related to the trial. Character witnesses are people who testify in a trial on behalf of a person (usually a criminal defendant) as to that person’s ethics and morality both by the personal knowledge of the witness and the person’s reputation in the community. Such testimony is admissible (1) when the guilt of an accused party is doubtful and the character of the defendant is involved in the question; (2) to affect the damages in civil cases, where their amount depends on the character and conduct of any individual; and (3) to impeach or confirm the veracity of a witness. Finally, expert witnesses may testify when knowledge of a technical subject matter might be helpful to a judge or jury. People with special training or experience in technical fields are admitted as expert witnesses and are permitted to state their opinion concerning those technical matters, even though they were not present at the event.
How Accurate Is Eyewitness Testimony?
A number of general statements can be made about eyewitnesses:
- People remember more about central components of an event than details, and the more stress someone is under, the fewer details they will remember. For example, a witness is more likely to remember the actions and speech of a person than to be able to describe the room or the perpetrator’s shoes. An extension of this concept is that when a weapon is present, witnesses tend to focus on the weapon more and on the person wielding the weapon less. In this scenario, the weapon becomes a more central component of the event (and thus remembered) and the wielder of the weapon becomes a less central component of the event (and thus less remembered).
- People can confuse pieces of several true events to the extent that they believe that people or events in one situation were present in a different For example, imagine that after a bank robbery a person runs outside and bumps into a news vendor. Later this witness is shown a lineup that does not have the robber in it but does have the news vendor in it. The witness may accidentally identify the news vendor as the robber from the lineup because the face of the news vendor is familiar and the witness assumes the face is familiar because of the robbery.
- We know that in most situations younger witnesses, particularly preschool-aged children, provide less information than adults; more of the information they do provide is inaccurate; and they are more likely than adults to succumb to pressures to change their reports. This is an important problem for the prosecution of child abuse because children are often the only witnesses to the crime.
- Other known facts are that witness confidence is not necessarily related to accuracy even though jurors tend to believe that more confident witnesses must be correct and that even subtle and unintentional suggestions from authority figures, such as the police, can cause witnesses to distort their reports.
How Do Jurors Perceive Witnesses?
Eyewitness testimony has a powerful effect on jurors’ judgments. Jurors are more likely to convict a defendant if an eyewitness identifies him as the perpetrator than if there is only circumstantial evidence linking him to the crime. Identifications from eyewitnesses influence jurors’ decisions even when the eyewitnesses are discredited, for example, by admitting that their vision is very poor. Eyewitness testimony influences jurors’ decisions irrespective of the witness’s viewing conditions. However, jurors tend to put less weight on the testimony of a child who has witnessed an event than on the testimony of an adult eyewitness. Still, in sexual abuse cases, younger victims are viewed as more credible than adolescents or adults, perhaps because jurors suspect that younger children lack the sexual knowledge to fabricate such allegations.
Testimony from an eyewitness influences jurors’ perceptions of a defendant’s culpability (or, in a civil case, of the manner in which an accident occurred) because many jurors assume that the witness’s memory is accurate. As mentioned previously, for central items, a witness’s memory is likely to be accurate. But in the aftermath of a crime or an accident, gist memory may be insufficient. In these situations, precise details about how the defendant looked or about how an accident occurred are necessary. Unfortunately, eyewitnesses to crimes often have poor memories of the precise details that would implicate one defendant and exculpate another.
Jurors can be sensitized to the factors that influence the reliability of eyewitness identifications. Courtroom testimony from an expert witness for the defense can educate jurors about the difficulty of cross-racial identifications, the influence of a weapon, and the effects of lineup suggestiveness on eyewitness memory, among other things. This expert testimony increases jurors’ sensitivity to the effects of a witness’s viewing conditions. Specifically, jurors who hear this testimony deem the defendant more culpable when the eyewitness identification was made under good witnessing conditions than when the identification was made under poor conditions.
Special Issues In Eyewitness Testimony
The Suggestibility of Children
An increase in the reporting of child abuse and the consequent rise in child courtroom testimony has encouraged research in the area of child witnesses. In cases of child abuse, often the only witness to the event is the child. One major area of study within the field of child witnesses is the influence of adult interviewers on child witness competency. Researchers have established that neutral interviewing techniques such as open-ended and free recall questions elicit the highest rates of accuracy but fewer details in the youngest children. On the other hand, more suggestive interviewing techniques such as close-ended and repeated questions have been found to increase details provided by the child by increasing both accurate and inaccurate details. Furthermore, leading questions, particularly when repeated over time and paired with other suggestive techniques (e.g., stereotype induction) can cause some subset of children to describe events that never occurred.
Types of Lineups and Cross-Race Identification
Recent research on the issue of photographic lineups has shown that the “typical” method of showing the witness six photographs or six people (i.e., showing all of them at once, called a simultaneous lineup) leads to less accurate suspect identification than showing witnesses one photograph or person at a time and asking them if this person is the suspect (called a sequential lineup). The idea is that if people view photos all at once they start to rely on relative judgments (i.e., which person looks most like the robber) rather than absolute judgments (i.e., is this individual the robber). People make more errors in relative judgments about photographic lineups. An additional twist is that we now know that witnesses make more errors when they are making identifications of suspects of a different race from their own. For example, a witness of African heritage will make more errors when trying to identify perpetrators of Asian heritage than when trying to identify perpetrators who are also of African heritage.
Witnesses are a primary component of Western systems of justice, and there are three basic types: eyewitnesses, expert witnesses, and character witnesses. Eyewitness accuracy is significantly degraded in a variety of common witnessing conditions (e.g., in stressful situations, after long time delays, when identifying someone of a different ethnic background). Despite these mitigating factors, jurors tend to believe in the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and generally do not attend to the types of conditions that are known to cause inaccurate testimony. However, jurors tend to put less weight on children’s eyewitness testimony than adults’ eyewitness testimony, which is consistent with the knowledge that child witnesses are more susceptible to suggestive interviewing techniques than adults.
- Ceci, J., & Bruck, M. (1995). Jeopardy in the courtroom: A scientific analysis of children’s testimony. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Ceci, S. J., Gilstrap, L. L., & Fitneva, S. (2002). Children’s testimony. In M. Rutter (Ed.), Child and adolescent psychiatry: Modern approaches (pp. 117–127). London: Blackwell Scientif
- Ceci, S. J., & Hembrooke, H. (Eds.). (1998). Expert witnesses in child abuse cases: What can and should be said in court. Washington, DC: American Psychological
- Cutler, B. L., & Penrod, S. D. (1995). Mistaken identification: The eyewitness, psychology, and the law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
- Innocence Lost. A PBS/Frontline production on several famous daycare child abuse cases. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/innocence/
- Innocence DNA based reversals of guilty convictions. Available from http://www.innocenceproject.org/
- Lindsay, C. L., Brigham, J. C., Brimacombe, C. A. E., & Wells, G. (2002). Eyewitness research. In J. Ogloff (Ed.), Taking psychology and law into the 21st century. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
- Wrightsman, S., Greene, E., Nietzel, M. T., & Fortune, W. H. (2002). Psychology and the legal system (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.