False Eyewitness Testimony and the Eichmann Trial

Exonerations Will Out
Almost daily there are stories of prisoners who were sent to jail because of false eyewitness testimony and who were released years later thanks to DNA testing. Eyewitness misidentification is a problem today in the United States, and there are few in the legal community who would deny it. They would, however, debate its scale.

You have free access to this content Can fabricated evidence induce false eyewitness testimony?

Distortions of memory play a part in both false confessions and false eyewitness testimony. Just as false memories can be induced by sympathetic therapists, so they can be elicited by hostile interrogators or cross-examiners. This is one reason for the unreliability of confessions. Psychotically depressed accused persons who already feel guilty are especially vulnerable to the suggestion that they actually are guilty (see , York County SS., April 12, 1992). As such, they may manufacture memories to conform to both their own sense of guilt and the examiner's expectations. In other instances, false confessions may simply be the products of fear induced by coercion, where the bottom line is "I would have said anything to get them off my back."

The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony

Some prisoners may even have been executed due to false eyewitness testimony To be sure, Fernanda's false eyewitness testimony was important to the Commonwealth's case against the defendants. We are persuaded, however, that the defendants' statements and conduct, both before and after the crime, and the physical evidence linking them to the vehicle apparently used in the shooting are sufficiently inculpatory to relieve the Commonwealth of the adverse consequences that might otherwise flow from its conduct of the grand jury proceedings and that the evidence submitted to the grand jury, apart from Fernanda's identification testimony, was sufficient "to establish the identity of the accused . . . and probable cause to arrest [them]." Commonwealth v. McCarthy, , 163 (1982). See also Commonwealth v. O'Dell, 392 Mass. at 450-451.

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To be sure, Fernanda's false eyewitness testimony was important to the Commonwealth's case against the defendants. We are persuaded, however, that the defendants' statements and conduct, both before and after the crime, and the physical evidence linking them to the vehicle apparently used in the shooting are sufficiently inculpatory to relieve the Commonwealth of the adverse consequences that might otherwise flow from its conduct of the grand jury proceedings and that the evidence submitted to the grand jury, apart from Fernanda's identification testimony, was sufficient “to establish the identity of the accused ․ and probable cause to arrest [them].” Commonwealth v. McCarthy, 385 Mass. 160, 163, 430 N.E.2d 1195 (1982). See also Commonwealth v. O'Dell, 392 Mass. at 450–451, 466 N.E.2d 828.

a talk by Barbara Tversky, Professor of Psychology