Sue Frantz

Eyewitness testimony: Is he guilty or not guilty?

Blog Post created by Sue Frantz on Feb 12, 2018

After covering the memory chapter, provide this excerpt from the Michigan Supreme Court case #155245, People vs. Elisah Kyle Thomas, to your students.

 

One evening, as the complainant [victim] walked to a nearby restaurant, he passed a man he did not know.  About 15 minutes later, after leaving the restaurant, the complainant was approached by the man he had passed by earlier.  The man pointed a gun at the complainant and demanded that he empty his pockets.  The complainant handed over $10 but the robber wanted more.  The complainant threw a soda can at the robber and ran. The robber followed, firing multiple shots, one of which struck the complainant in his leg. The complainant went to a nearby church and the pastor called 9-1-1. 

 

In the ambulance, the complainant gave an officer a description of the robber. Another officer canvassed the area and saw the defendant Elisah Kyle Thomas, who matched the description. The officer stopped the defendant but let him go after learning that he had no outstanding warrants. Before letting the defendant go, however, the officer took a photograph of him with her cell phone.  The officer immediately went to the hospital and asked the complainant to describe the robber.  After the complainant gave a description, the officer showed him the photo and asked “was this him?”  The complainant started to cry and said “that’s him.” 

 

And then add:

 

The victim “remembered both that the assailant’s weapon was ‘a black and gray nine millimeter handgun and that the assailant held it in his right hand,’” “the identification occurred approximately a half hour to an hour after the crime,” and “the victim identified the person in the photograph as the assailant within a few seconds of seeing the photograph.”

 

[Note, not to be read aloud to your students: these quotes are from the APA amicus brief. I’d cite it, but citing an amicus brief in APA style is not a straightforward affair. For those of you who love that sort of thing – you know who you are – feel free to figure it out and email it to me at sfrantz@highline.edu. I’ll update this blog post with any version that looks like it could be right.]

 

Now, ask students to take a couple minutes and consider how much they trust the eyewitness’ memory of the robber. If you use a classroom responses system, ask students to render a verdict based on the evidence given: guilty, not guilty, not sure. In pairs or small groups, ask students to identify why they trust/don’t trust the eyewitness’ memory. Invite volunteers to share their thoughts.

 

What happened with this case? The trial court found that the “single-suspect lineup” and asking “was this him?” was suggestive and dismissed the charges. The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed and allowed the evidence. The Michigan Supreme Court, however, agreed with the trial court and also – and for good – dismissed the charges (Beattey & Calkins, 2018).

 

The American Psychological Association (APA) filed an amicus brief to the court (read the summary here; read the full amicus brief here) explaining why the identification was suspect: “[t]he victim observed the assailant for a very short time,” “[t]he victim had only a partial view of the defendant’s features,” “[t]he assailant was a stranger to the victim,” and “[t]he robbery was a highly stressful situation.” The reasoning the Court of Appeals gave for reinstating the charges was based on some common misunderstandings of memory. The APA amicus brief addressed these as well: “[t]he victim’s detailed memory of the assailant’s weapon makes his memory less reliable, not more,” “[m]emories degrade very quickly,” and “[t]he victim’s confidence does not indicate that his memory was accurate.”

 

If your students were ready to convict based on the eyewitness testimony, review what the research tells us about memory as it applies to this court case before leaving the chapter.

 

References

 

Beattey, R. A., & Calkins, C. (2018, February). The legal system follows the empirical evidence on eyewitness identification. Monitor on Psychology, 29. Retrieved from http://www.apamonitor-digital.org/apamonitor/201802/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=28#pg31  

Outcomes