Seeing Isn't Always Believing

"police Line Do Not Cross" crime scene tape graphic
A study by Yale researchers and the U.S. Navy suggests that eyewitness accounts in violent crimes are not very accurate or reliable.

The report, published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, was based on a unique study of 509 Navy and Marine officers undergoing survival training at Fort Bragg, N.C.

The study suggests that law enforcement and juries may give eyewitness testimony too much credibility, according to Dr. Charles A. Morgan III, a Yale psychiatrist and lead author of the study.

"Memory in healthy people is not inherently terribly accurate. There's a substantial amount of error," Morgan said. "Maybe we should demand more evidence."

The current study, which was published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, is unusual in that participants were educationally, physically and mentally similar and all underwent nearly identical stressful events, Morgan said.

Groups of top officers undergoing realistic training at Fort Bragg are placed in a mock prisoner of war camp and subjected to low- and high-stress interrogations by U.S. officers acting as the "enemy."

Twenty-four hours after the grueling sessions, the officers were asked to identify "interrogators" and "guards." They viewed a lineup, a group of photos and a sequence of photos.

Morgan and colleagues found that in the live lineup 30 percent of the high-stress group made correct identifications versus 62 percent of the low-stress group.