VSL:SCIENCE // The biggest flaw in our legal system?

Eyewitness testimony is notoriously hard to evaluate; it can also make or break a case. So who’s best qualified to judge it, and how?

Stockholm University psychologist Torun Lindholm showed 27 volunteer “witnesses” a short videotape depicting a kidnapping, then asked each of them 12 specific questions about what they had seen. Next, she asked 59 judges, 36 police detectives, and 60 laypeople to rate the witnesses’ answers as true or false. (Some of these evaluators watched the testimony on video; others read transcripts.) The judges and laypeople performed horribly; their answers were only slightly better than chance. Detectives were 50 percent likelier to spot incorrect statements but rated almost half of the false statements as true.

Moreover, Lindholm found that judges, laypeople, and cops all evaluated transcribed testimony more accurately than they did videotaped testimony. If confirmed — and Lindholm recommends further study — the findings suggest that our legal system’s preference for live or videotaped testimony rather than written statements may be ill-considered.

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