Reform the Use of Testimony as Evidence [11/17/10]
The procedures used to gather and analyze testimony need to be reformed because innocent people are going to jail. Recent stories have highlighted this phenomenon: [11/17/10]
False Confessions in Norfolk, VA [11/17/10]
On November 9, 2010, the show "Frontline" on PBS ran a story called "The Confessions" in which seven innocent men were arrested--and four convicted--for participation in a murder. The Of the four who were convicted, three served 11 years before being pardoned and the other served his entire sentence. They had confessed to a murder they didn't commit because the police used dirty interrogation techniques such as "the threat of the death penalty, sleep deprivation, [and] intimidation".
This is the latest incident exemplifying how the procedures used to gather and analyze testimony, whether in a police station or in court, are grossly inaccurately and need be overhauled. It has been proven countless times that the form in which a question is asked is highly influential upon the testimony given.
It's hard enough to get accurate testimony when officials are trying to get accurate testimony. When police are torturing and bullying a suspect, they are blatantly increasing the chance of getting false testimony. This is yet another reason why police and prosecutors, when gathering and analyzing testimony, need to have new guidelines which put an emphasis on soliciting and analyzing straitforward accounts instead of coercing subjects into giving accounts which fit into their preconceived hunches.
In October, PBS Frontline also ran a story about a man who was tried and convicted of killing his own kids in a fire. Cameron Todd Willingham was outside of his house when the fire occurred and he changed his story several times about what he actually did to try to save his kids. Footprints were found inside the house which were supposedly formed during the fire.
Willingham was sentenced to death. Before the execution was to occur, new innovations in arson study showed that the fire was a flash fire and couldn't possible been started by a person. The Texas judge and governor paid no attention to this revelation and executed Willingham anyway.
In retrospect, Willingham probably couldn't accurately remember what happened. When officials presented the evidence to him, which seemed to indicate his guilt, they probably influenced his testimony to match their preconceived agenda. Another possibility is that he was embarrassed of his cowardice in not entering the house and that he initially lied to appear more brave.
Either way, this is further proof that testimony tends to be inaccurate whether it comes from an eye-witness, a victim, or a suspect. One reform that needs to be made is that police and courts need to give less weight to testimony as evidence. And if the testimony is questionable, like when a suspect keeps changing it, even less weight should be given to it.
Eyewitness testimony, whether that of a victim or a third party witness, has historically been shown to be consistently inaccurate. If Georgia is to continue to use it as legal evidence, then the procedures used to extract it must be reformed.
Perceived victims are sometimes women who come from abusive backgrounds and carry with them a victim mentality. They think they have been victimized by someone when, in fact, no physical wrong-doing has taken place. The act of victimization is only real in their minds. They are psychologically driven to seek attention and validation as victims.
Minorities and the poor are more likely to be the victims of inaccurate testimony. Witnesses might be prejudice against them and they are easier to prosecute because they have less legal and financial resources. Public defenders, who are overburdened with cases, advise innocent suspects to take plea bargains because it is easier for them and they will probably be found guilty anyway.
Another problem with witness testimony, according to Barbara Tversky and George Fisher of Standford University, is that the jury is "exclusively assigned the role of sorting out credibility issues and making judgments about the truth of witness statements." Jurors are just common people. They're not experts on identifying liars and they are certainly not experts on identifying witnesses who think they are telling the truth but are, in fact, telling untruths.
Tversky and Fisher also point out that Elizabeth Loftus conducted experiments in the 70s that show that witnesses give different testimony based on the questions they are asked. For instance, when subjects were questioned about a picture of a car crash, if the word smash was used to describe the crash, they reported seeing broken glass. If the word hit was used in the line of questioning, they did not report seeing broken glass.
This system of fake evidence needs to be reformed. One problem is that police do not know proper techniques for questioning witnesses. Georgia should establish new guidelines for questioning to get more accurate testimony. Police need to focus on objectively evaluating the legitimacy of testimony rather than focus on building a case with anything they can get. This issue was being discussed in the Georgia legislature in 2006, but has since been swept under the rug. It is very important for the freedom of our society and needs to be discussed once again.