CBS Poll: What To Believe?

Americans Trust Physical Evidence More Than Eyewitness Testimony

Although many Americans admit they have trouble remembering details about things they've seen and done, they generally trust the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.

The overwhelming majority thinks eyewitness testimony is reliable.

A CBS News Poll, conducted for the 48 Hours broadcast Eyewitness, found that when comparing the reliability of eyewitness testimony to physical evidence, however, more people put faith in physical evidence, such as a weapon or blood.

When asked about the assasination of John F. Kennedy -- perhaps this country's most enduring controversy about evidence and eyewitness testimony -- physical evidence plays a key role in people's theories.

Nearly nine out of 10 Americans think eyewitness testimony used in trials is at least somewhat reliable. However, trust in physical evidence is even stronger.

A majority of people say physical evidence is generally reliable, compared to just 22% who say that about eyewitnesses.

How reliable is physical evidence?
Eyewitness TestimonyPhysical Evidence
Not At All7%3%

Faith in eyewitness accounts is not shaken by peoples' experiences with their own memories. Only 7% think eyewitness testimony is definitely not reliable -- despite 42% who say they themselves remember details accurately only some of the time or not at all. In addition, 61% say that if asked to remember what they saw or heard about a week ago, they would recall only some parts of it accurately -- or nothing at all.

When it comes to a direct comparison of the two types of evidence, about half choose physical evidence as more reliable. Still, more than a third think eyewitnesses are just as reliable as physical evidence. One in 10 thinks eyewitnesses are more reliable than physical evidence.

Which Evidence Is More Reliable?

However, if physical and eyewitness evidence were to conflict, nearly three out of four people say they would believe the physical evidence. And 60% believe scientific tests, such as DNA or other tests, can prove that a person was presen at a crime scene. Younger people are more likely to trust this kind of forensic evidence.

Physical Evidence in the JFK Assassination

The reliability of eyewitness testimony versus physical evidence is in part at issue in the continuing debate about the Kennedy assassination.

Official reports that attempted to explain alleged inconsistencies in the evidence have not completely alleviated the public's concerns. People on both sides - those who believe in a conspiracy and those who think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone - cite issues surrounding physical evidence as some of the main evidence for their theory.

Those who think there was a conspiracy cite two main reasons for their belief: There were too many shots and bullet wounds for a lone gunman, and Oswald wasn't smart enough to have acted alone.
When pressed about the best evidence to prove Oswald did act alone, 25 percent overall cite the lack of physical and other evidence proving other people were involved.

A majority of Americans has always believed others were involved in the Kennedy assassination. But 35 years later, nearly three out of four say there were conspirators involved in the Kennedy assassination, and nearly as many - 68 percent - believe there was an official cover-up to keep the public from learning the truth. Less than one in five Americans have entirely ruled out the possibility of a cover-up. And 84% think the public will "never really know" what happened.

This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 823 adults interviewed by phone May 6-7, 1998. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus 3 percentage points for results based on the entire sample.

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