Groupthink: Eye Witness Testimony

Groupthink: Eye Witness Testimony


According to the groupthink, eyewitness testimony is considered the most reliable evidence of criminal justice. People do not stop believing in the faithfulness of evidence because they claim eyewitnesses cannot be mistaken. The testimony of an eyewitness is supposed to be the most valuable help for crime solving because a witness is someone who was present at a crime scene. Most of the juries tend to rely on such testimonies and to come to a final decision basing on them. Eyewitness testimony can be accurate and helpful in sentencing the right person. Yet it can be faulty and condemn an innocent person to years of imprisonment or even to the death penalty.

According to the statistics of Innocence Network 2011 exoneration report, wrongful convictions were made in 19 of 21 cases because of eyewitness testimony (Clare, 2012). Whether or not the testimony of an eyewitness can be considered reliable is a controversial question. There had been cases when a person had spent 20 or 30 years in prison, and only then, through DNA evidence, s/he was acquitted. Nonetheless, people still refuse to accept that eye witnessing can be insincere and deceiving. Groupthink is an invincible power, and it is extremely hard to change its direction. People tend to believe in some truths, and they refuse to turn their worlds upside down and see the problem from another perspective.

Untrustworthiness of eyewitness testimony can be evidenced by reasonable factors. Jurors are prone to give too much credit to eyewitnesses. Human abilities are limited, and even if a person claims that s/he recognizes the face of a suspect, there is no guarantee that his/her senses do not deceive him/her. For example, distance plays a vital part in reliability of testimony. Peoples ability to distinguish such details as eyes, nose shape, clothes or color of hair, gets worse with increasing distance. When the criminal moves far away, it is almost impossible to remember his/her precise features. Moreover, at the moment of a crime, a witness is in a state of stress and fear. From the groupthink point of view, violence and the presence of a weapon during a crime sharpen the memory and make a witness remember details better. Nevertheless, this opinion is also wrong. Violence and stress during an incident, as a rule, weaken the memory. Thus, the person may sincerely try to recognize some faces and remember the details, but that will lead to confusion (Clare, 2012).

Gary Wells, Iowa State University psychologist, compares eyewitness evidence with trace evidence. He says that eyewitness can as well be destroyed, contaminated or lost. It can lead to an inaccurate reconstruction of a crime (Stambor, 2006). Besides limited physical abilities, a witness can have personal reasons to provide police and the court with faulty evidence. People can agree to witness either to assure everyone that a particular criminal is innocent or to prove that an innocent person is a criminal.

The fate of Joseph Green Brown can be considered as a relevant court case because eyewitness testimony was used to convict the innocent man. In 1974, the court pleaded Mr. Brown guilty of the killing and rape of a woman in Tampa, Florida and was sentenced to death. The sentence was based on the testimony of a man who was sitting in a car with Mr. Brown and some other man. The witness claimed that suddenly the car stopped at a clothing shop with no clear purpose. Mr. Brown and the other man entered the shop, and the witness stayed inside the car. The other man who went to the shop with Mr. Brown was never found or identified. A few minutes later, the witness insisted that he heard a gunshot and run inside the shop. There he saw the dead victim on the floor. He persuaded the court and the judge that Mr. Brown was the killer. The innocent man spent 13 years in prison, and later, on cross examination, the witness denied he had been promised anything in exchange for his testimony. However, after Mr. Browns condemnation it was found out that the evidence was a lie. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ordered a new trial based on the apparent perjury and the fact that the prosecution did not manage to correct it. After that, the witness, who had implicated Mr. Brown in the crime, renounced his previous words. The man said he had lied because he was angry that Mr. Brown tied him with the robbery case that had been dropped in return for the testimony that sent Mr. Brown to death row (Warden, 2001b).

The reasonable person standard is very valuable for both tort cases and criminal cases. It also has a major impact on eyewitness testimony. In court, the reasonable person standard applies to the question of how would an average reasonable person have behaved in the same situation and under the same circumstances? All people are different, and it is hard to apply this standard to everybody. Some witnesses can prove to be adequate and reasonable, while others are unstable and unreliable. There are a lot of strictly individual characteristics that can influence the liability of testimony. The relevant reasonableness of the evidence, given by an eyewitness, is determined by his physical and psychological state, external factors and personal benefit. A person who is physically sick can not meet the standard of conduct which is expected from an average person. There were cases when an eyewitness of a crime had at first claimed that the perpetrator was white but later, having seen a photo lineup, identified a black person as a criminal.

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Therefore, eyewitness testimony can be considered the most important evidence in crime solving, but at the same time it can be misleading and faulty. The task is to be able to distinguish faulty evidence from correct.

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