Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony: What We Learned From Troy Davis

November 2, 2011

Brenda Forrest, one of the jurors who convicted Troy Davis and sentenced him to death, told CNN that in 1991 she believed: “He was definitely guilty.  All of the witnesses, they were able to I.D. him as the person who actually did it.”

justice scalesHowever, years after the trial, Forrest backtracked as the case against Davis began to unravel, and went on to say that, knowing what she knows now about the witness recantations,  she would have voted to acquit Davis of the crime for which he was put to death September 21.

Eyewitnesses do seem credible to jurors.  After all, they were there.  And back in 1991 when Troy Davis’ fate was being decided, eyewitnesses seemed credible to courts too.  Not so much any more.  Decades of studies have exposed how shaky human memory is, and how little eyewitness evidence should be trusted. Ironically, for Davis, this meant that a form of evidence deemed reliable enough to convict him in 1991 was considered too untrustworthy in 2010 to be considered “clear and convincing” proof of his innocence.

On September 21, the U.S. Supreme Court was dragging out Troy Davis’ execution for four hours, while doing nothing to prevent it.  Today, the Court took up Perry v. New Hampshire, an important, though non-death penalty, case that highlights the crumbling value of eyewitness testimony.

We have learned that the human mind is malleable and easily open to suggestion (intentional or otherwise). So the Court is seeking to determine if eyewitness testimony acquired under “suggestive circumstances” should always be barred from trials, or only in those cases where authorities orchestrated the “suggestive circumstances”.

For Troy Davis, whose case certainly did include eyewitness statements acquired under “suggestive circumstances”, this is too late, but at least the Supreme Court is acknowledging the unreliability of the evidence that was used to convict and kill him.

How are you as an eyewitness? Try Iowa State University Professor Gary Wells’ eyewitness test and let us know how you did.