Friday, June 20, 2014

The Eyewitness

In crime fiction we tend to tie things up neat and tidy – in the end but only after a plot with more twists and turns than the river near Tomintoul. The final thing we do, is put the perpetrator in a little box, the case fixed by a nice wee dollop of DNA.


The use of faulty eyewitness ID in ...(whatever novel it is I am on now....writing 6, researching 7, gearing up for publication of 5 and getting very confused.) Tears Of Angels caused me to have a re-think. Do such mistakes really happen? Can people have such certainty and confidence about their own testimony?
Then a cheerful happenstance  I was offered a place on a course on Forensic Psychology And Eyewitness Identification.

The importance of  'evaluation' of eyewitness evidence should never be overemphasised  because many facts make such evidence largely unreliable. 70% of the cases of the cases of wrongful conviction now being overturned by  DNA evidence were convicted in the first place because of incorrect identification by eye witnesses.
Although forensic evidence has its place – many more convictions are based on the evidence of the victim or eyes witnesses – a jury full of people tends to believe  people. My lawyer friend says that;  A jury will go with a  “ nice lady victim”  versus "evil man in the dock.' The fact that it has got to court so there is no exculpatory evidence.  So he is convicted…
And the firm confident eyewitness evidence of the nice lady victim will always  play a huge part.
But being confident doesn't mean being right.
The jury don't want to hear about the dull light, the trauma, her state of terror at the time, the fleeting glimpse.....and on it goes.
The forensic psychiatrist evaluates the accuracy and usefulness of any eyewitness ID.  Research has shown that children make much better witnesses than was previously suspected, but any evidence from them must be viewed from their world perspective. For adults they have established guidelines on distance (15m), light, familiarity and the duration of the event ( more than 15 seconds). They have posed doubt on co-witness accounts; don't let witnesses talk to each other. Forensic psychologists have changed the way police question victims or eyewitnesses. It's Do you see the man in the line up... not.... which of these guys was it? Even the most subtle nuance  can alter the memory.
It’s all about meta cognition and meta memory.  And all memory is like a story – it changes every time its told and shared.

Memories are also subject to influence by social media and general media – public outcry about a crime – about the way it is reported can affect the memory and the confidence of the eyewitness reports of that crime. A recent murder in Glasgow produced a warning from Police Scotland. Do Not Discuss this on Facebook.

For part of this course I was asked to put the following eight factors into the correct order with those that have contributed  most to wrongful conviction at  the top. They are from the USA and 'wrongful conviction' refers to a case later overturned by DNA evidence
So the 8  are
          DNA inclusion
          defective forensic science
          forensic blood analysis
          eyewitness ID
          police misconduct
          false confession
          false witness testimony

Answers at the end...
Some figures from Project Innocence. Of the 275 exonerations by DNA, 75% had eyewitness ID as main contributory factor in their conviction. Weirdly for our CSI generation, 23% of wrongful convictions were due to ‘bad’ forensic science.  My pathologist pal always states that pathologists should know nothing about the victim and the likely perpetrator. It should all be double blind. The findings are subjective and experts are only human.
A partial fingerprint found on a bomb? Does it really help if fingermark XYZ is known to be that of somebody with previous convictions of terrorism, or belonged to a certain racial, ethnic or religious group.  If the media are baying for blood after an outrage, how far will the eye search for the merest of matches in swirls and loops in a fragmented print. Will the search continue until they feel a match is made.  Much better then to have no knowledge of the surrounding circumstances at all.
Bad finger print ID accounts for much of the faulty forensic science.
Other stories include the 16 year old hunt for the Phantom of  Heilbron where the  same female  DNA was found at over 40 crime scenes. In the end it was proved to be that of a perfectly innocent woman who worked at the factory in Germany that manufactured the swabs. The swabs were sterile for medical use but not DNA sterile for forensic use.
And my pathologist pal tells of a case where a smattering of black powder started to appear on the bodies of all kind of victims. All victims were attended by the same forensic pathologist (not my friend) – it was from the frayed binding of his little black notebook.

A much more serious case involved a  murder of a woman and her daughter in a field . With little or no evidence to go on the police had ordered forensic tests on all the clothing present. Sure enough, one perfect spray pattern of DNA loaded mucous appeared.
Joy was short lived when it was proved to be the lab technician who had tested it – caused by an inadvertent sneeze!

The answers - 1)  Eyewitness ID
                       2)  Forensic blood analysis
                       3) Police misconduct
                       4)  defective forensic science
                       5)  false confession
                       6)  false witness testimony
                       7)  informants
                       8)  DNA inclusion

Well I think that was what was on the screen, but my eyes might have deceived me.

Caro 20 06 2014


  1. Caro, this is fascinating and incredibly useful. As you probably have heard, my series that starts with Strange Gods will follow the Ten Commandments. I am printing this now and putting into my file for its general usefulness in creating plot twists, but especially for the book based on the 9th: Thou shat not bear false witness against they neighbor! THANK YOU!!!

  2. I'd seen a piece on 60 Minutes (always to be taken with a grain of salt, but this piece seemed pretty solid) a year or two ago about eyewitness IDs and how often they fail, focusing on a woman who was raped, ID'd her rapist, and he spent many years in jail before being cleared by DNA evidence. Now, they're VERY close and are working together to improve police departments' (and the general public's) understanding of the 'frailty' of eyewitness ID and many of the issues that you touched upon. Great post!

    1. Here's the 60 Minutes report that I mentioned, watchable (or readable) on-line:

  3. It's so much easier writing in a country where knowledgeable readers so readily accept that politics trumps all.

  4. This should be mandatory reading by all newspaper reporters. And police. And juries. Oh heck. Everyone!

  5. Hi,
    thanks to all for you comments and to Everett for the link. We studied the Cotton/Poole case last week. Two men so alike that the prison warders often got them confused. One innocent but found guilty of rape by victim ID ; cleared by DNA 11 years later. It sounds like a perfect storm of facial features, lack of alibi, wrong place and wrong time.

  6. And it's cases like those that convinced me to be 100% against the death penalty. Humans err. No matter how heinous the crimes, even ONE innocent person put to death is one too many (and there HAVE been many!)