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The fallibility of eyewitness testimony


January 20, 2014
By Corrie Sloot

by Ian Fraser, Louise Bond-Fraser and Katelyn Waite

The justice system has been under the microscope since the advent of DNA evidence and the resultant exonerations. Inquiries have scrutinized the investigative process and suggested changes to the way information is gathered and processed to ensure errors do not reoccur. <1>

The recommendations are being both noted and executed, the results suggest. In Canada, for example, most police investigators are now implementing recommendations on the correct way to conduct a line-up. <2>

However, though the “how” of correct procedure seems to have been addressed, the underlying question of the “why” seems to have been largely overlooked. This is an important question since it only makes sense that an understanding of the reasoning behind procedural changes makes implementation logical and therefore less likely to be misunderstood.

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The authors of this article recently surveyed Canadian police officers and found that most are not aware of the scientific literature pertaining to eyewitness fallibility. <3> In fact, the overall score on the knowledge section of the questionnaire was only 61.1 per cent. Members with more than 25 years experience scored no better on the survey than newer members.

It appears that, even though most officers were trained in the proper use of a line-up procedure, only 46 per cent answered correctly by agreeing with the following statement:

This may be due in part to the fact that 20 per cent of the responding officers had never been exposed to the research on the fallibility of eyewitness testimony.

The authors believe that simply mandating the use of a particular procedure may not be sufficient. The officer should be fully informed of the possibility of misidentification, which can arise if the protocol is not followed properly. Understanding why a procedure is conducted in a particular way obviously makes it easier to apply without error.

It seems too that police would welcome this sort of instruction. In the course of the study, we asked participating officers whether they felt that they could use more training on eyewitness fallibility; most (89.9 per cent) believed it would be beneficial. Therefore, it would make sense to make this type of information an integral part of new officer training and implement refresher courses for those already on the job to update them on any new information as it becomes available.

<1> Ian Fraser, Louise Bond-Fraser, Michael Houlihan, Kimberley Fenwick, Dave Korotkov and Barry Morrison, “Witnesses and the Law” (Ontario, Canada Law Books, 2011), 18.

<2> Douglas Quan, “Book ’em, Danno: Police Lineups Becoming a Thing of the Past,” Times Colonist Digital (23 October 2011), online: Canada.com

<3> Ian Fraser, Katelyn Waite and Louise Bond-Fraser “Canadian Police Officers’ Knowledge of the Fallibility of Eyewitness Testimony” (2013), 1:3 International Journal of Liberal Arts and Social Science, 108.


The complete paper can be found at: http://www.ijlass.org/data/frontImages/gallery/Vol.1_No.3/11.pdf . Contact Ian Fraser at fras@stu.ca for more information.