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Psychological Aspects of Courtroom Testimony

NCJ Number
Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Volume: 347 Dated: (June 20, 1980) Pages: 27-37
E F Loftus
Date Published
11 pages
As jurors in a criminal or civil trial listen to testimony, they construct in their minds an 'image' of an incident that was never witnessed by them. Many psychological factors influence this mental construct, and consequently, the verdict.
To study the impact of language in the courtroom, 75 student jurors were asked to read some information about a case, and to reach a verdict based on the evidence presented. The incident consisted of an argument between two men at night at a marina in which one man, the alleged blackmailer, ended up in the water and drowned. The subject-jurors received one of two versions of the case. One version contained questions with words that indirectly suggest that the blackmailer may have been pushed during a struggle; while the other version contained more neutral language. Jurors who read the emotional version of the case were more likely to return a guilty verdict than those who read the neutral version (41 percent guilty votes versus 22 percent guilty votes, respectively). In a follow-up to this study, it was found that those who received the emotional version had a different image of the incident. Because of its enormous impact, eyewitness testimony also has a profound impact on juries. In experimental scenarios of eyewitnesses at crime scenes, a study found that with no eyewitnesses, 18 percent of the subject-jurors found the defendant guilty; this rose to 72 percent when a single eyewitness account was added to the evidence. Interestingly, of jurors who heard about a discredited witness, 68 percent still voted for conviction. In addition to beleiving the eyewitness testimony about 80 percent of the time, jurors were just as likely to believe a witness who made a incorrect identification as one who had made a correct identification. When comparing the impact of eyewitness testimony to most expert testimony, it was found that convictions were highest in the case of the eyewitness (78 percent) and lowest in the case of the expert (34 percent). Yet taken together, some studies indicate that on consequence of presenting psychological expert testimony is that it increases the amount of attention that jurors give to eyewitness accounts, perhaps enhancing their scrutinization of these accounts. Eighteen references are appended.


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