How Reliable Is Eyewitness Testimony? Essay

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On Oct. 10, 1997, Fairbanks, Alaska, residents who had lived in the state at least a year received about $1,500-an equal share of the income produced by the sale of state's oil and other natural resources. Residents receive these oil dividends, in part, to keep them vested in their state government. Inevitably some residents raucously celebrate the annual windfall, and that night the celebrating turned deadly as four young hooligans embarked on "Clockwork Orange"-style attacks on random individuals. When the night was over, a teenage boy, John Hartman, had been robbed, sexually assaulted and murdered, and an older man, Franklin Dayton, was seriously injured after being robbed and attacked. Within days, four suspects were arrested and locked up. At the trial two years later, the prosecutor's case rested on an eyewitness account by Fairbanks resident Arlo Olson, who testified that as he stood in the doorway of Eagles Hall, he watched in horror as a group of men, whom he identified as the defendants, accosted and savagely beat Dayton in a parking lot 450 feet away. "No physical evidence actually ties any of the defendants to the crimes," wrote Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter Larry Campbell in an article on the trial. The defense called as an expert witness Geoffrey Loftus, PhD, a University of Washington perception and cognition psychology professor who testified that Olson was too far away to accurately perceive the defendants' facial features. Seeing someone from 450 feet away is like sitting high in the center field bleachers in Yankee Stadium and looking across the ballpark at another individual sitting in the stands behind home plate, Loftus testified. Despite Loftus's testimony, the jury convicted the defendants of assault and murder. Four years later, the defense attorney learned that the jury had believed Olson's identification because four jurors had
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