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A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words: Conversational Versus Eyewitness Testimony in Criminal Convictions

NCJ Number
American Criminal Law Review Volume: 44 Issue: 1 Dated: Winter 2007 Pages: 1-52
Steven B. Duke; Ann Seung-Eun Lee; Chet K.W. Pager
Date Published
52 pages
This article compared the psychological processes and legal responses between eyewitness and conversational testimony in order to highlight the dangers of conversational testimony to the innocent.
The comparative analysis of eyewitness versus conversational testimony indicated that witnesses providing conversational testimony are more susceptible to error than eye witnesses at each stage of the memory process: acquisition, retention, and retrieval. Moreover, the analysis highlighted the greater complexity involved in conversation compared to visual information in terms of the impact of the witnesses’ own personal biases and interpretations of the world. The author also points out that while eyewitness testimony is subjected to careful scrutiny in terms of data collection and presentation methods, no such legal processes or safeguards govern the sanctity of conversational testimony. The main reason for presenting the current research was to draw attention to the overlooked problem of conversational testimony, which research has shown is more common, more likely to be inaccurate, more likely to be believed by jurors, and more likely to produce irreversible errors than eyewitness testimony. While the author acknowledges that the legal system still needs to rely on conversational testimony to recreate events, there should be steps taken to reduce the danger of errors in such testimony. Reform efforts are suggested and include the requirement that interrogations of suspects be videotaped so that the jury could be permitted to observe the process through which confessions are obtained. The research relied on a literature review of research on conversational memory, which indicates that conversational memory is exceedingly poor and extremely malleable, and a review of the psychology of eyewitness versus conversational testimony. The analysis focuses on comparing the memory process of eyewitness and conversational evidence at each stage of the memory process: acquisition, retention, and retrieval. Footnotes


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