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psychological science and the who-dunit?

September 1, 2011

Even though it was a year ago that we (the Denison “we”) had a wonderful visit with Elizabeth Loftus, I wanted to make sure folks were still thinking about some of the issues she had discussed. You can click here for an interesting article in the on-line magazine Slate that discusses Dr. Loftus’s work, as well as some of their own inquiry into various false memory phenomena.

Once you have revisited some of the basic issues, I invite you to read the current New York Times “Room for Debate”. They have comments from five experts (including Dr. Loftus) about the use of eyewitness testimony in jury trials. This is a great chance to see psychological science making important contributions to difficult discussions. This is definitely one of those situations where there are no “easy answers”, so it is especially important that the science that can inform the debate. From what I could tell, all five experts sided with the general conclusions of a recent ruling handed down by the New Jersey Supreme Court – the ruling outlines a series of procedures for handling challenges to eyewitness evidence in criminal trials, and in a large part the decision is based firmly on conclusions drawn from scientific study of eyewitness identification. Yeah.  I’m not sure this will completely fix the occurrence of wrongful convictions based on faulty eyewitness testimony. From what I can see, it looks as though the next issue will be with the juries themselves… People have a tendency to hold onto their naive theories about the world pretty strongly, so simply requiring the judge to inform the jury about the potential for eyewitnesses to be mistaken may not be enough for some members of the jury to shift how they weigh that evidence. Still, it is refreshing to see this kind of shift occurring in how the courts think about eye witness testimony.

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