Eyewitness testimony often is not reliable, with or without motive to lie.
According to the preliminary report from the autopsy requested by the Michael Brown family, Brown was shot six times, four in the right arm and two in the head, the last head shot killing him. All of the shots entered from the front.
These findings could end up being revised, but so far the forensic evidence contradicts the reports of several eyewitnesses who reported that at least some shots were fired from behind as Brown was fleeing.
One of those witnesses, Dorian Johnson, had reason to lie, since he was Brown’s friend and it was later revealed that he had been present at the time of the convenience store robbery that preceded the confrontation with Officer Wilson.
Eyewitness testimony is prized by the public but is often extremely flawed. It is unnecessary to allege eyewitness bias in this case in order to doubt the reliability of the eyewitnesses: study upon study has demonstrated how poor eyewitness testimony often tends to be.
Here’s an interesting point about focus that’s relevant to the Brown shooting:
The weapon focus effect suggests that the presence of a weapon narrows a person’s attention, thus affects eyewitness memory. A person focuses on the central detail (for example, the weapon) and loses focus on the peripheral details (for example, the perpetrator’s characteristics). While the weapon is remembered clearly, the memories of the other details of the scene suffer…Another hypothesis is that seeing a weapon might cause an aroused state. In an aroused state, people focus on central details instead of peripheral ones.
That’s not the only focus problem. There’s more:
The testimony of a witness can lose validity due to too many external stimuli, that may affect what was witnessed during the crime, and therefore obstruct memory. For example, if an individual witnesses a car accident on a very public street, there may be too many cues distracting the witness from the main focus. Numerous interfering stimulus inputs may suppress the importance of the stimulus of focus, the accident. This can degrade the memory traces of the event, and diminish the representation of those memories. This is known as the cue-overload principle.
The Brown killing had all those characteristics, which would tend to degrade eyewitness memory even if there were no other issues involved. Also, the enormous amount of publicity and talk in the media about the event could have had its own effect:
…[T]he memory of an eyewitness can become compromised by other information, such that an individual’s memory becomes biased. This can increase eyewitnesses sensitivity to the misinformation effect. Individuals report what they believe to have witnessed at the time of the crime, even though this may be the result of a false memory. These effects can be a result of post-event information.
It would not be the least bit surprising if the testimony of many of the eyewitnesses in this case turned out to be inaccurate. That’s why the forensics are extremely important. A webcam would have been very good, too, but unfortunately no official video exists. Meanwhile, the demagogues continue their work.
Update 8/19/2014: As a clarification, the fact that it “is unnecessary to allege eyewitness bias in this case in order to doubt the reliability of the eyewitnesses” does not mean that some of the eyewitnesses are not biased. In addition, the fact that Brown’s killing had characteristics that “would tend to degrade eyewitness memory even if there were no other issues involved” does not mean there were no other issues involved.
In short, the problem with eyewitness testimony exists irrespective of all the other problems in the Brown case, of which there are many.
[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]DONATE
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