Defense expert cautions jury about eyewitness accounts under stress
August 13, 2014
A defense expert cautioned jurors on Wednesday that, in extremely stressful situations, people’s memories can be seriously flawed.
The testimony from professor Robert Shomer came in the trial of David Paul Lane, 58, accused of assault with a deadly weapon by threatening people at the Olive Garden restaurant a year ago.
Shomer, an associate professor at Harvard in experimental psychology, said the witnesses at the restaurant may believe what they said during testimony but, “just because somebody’s confident of something doesn’t mean they are correct.”
“That’s why you have to evaluate the accuracy of what they’re telling you,” he said.
He said a witness’s initial report should be the starting place because, over time, it’s human nature people later on, add to their memory of what actually happened.
“This elaboration of detail, in effect, this manufacturing of detail, may come about,” Shomer said.
After a time, he said, in many cases, “people come up with things that sound like they happened but didn’t happen.”
Shomer said he wasn’t there to say the witnesses were right or wrong in their testimony. He said he was just cautioning the jurors in the case to evaluate what they said and how it changed over time.
“What they said initially is a very important benchmark,” he said.
When an event such as the July 21, 2013, incident at the restaurant happens, he said stress sometimes seriously compromises the accuracy of a witness’s recollection of exactly what happened.
Asked about witness statements that even correctly identified the make and model of Lane’s pistol, Shomer said the focus on the weapon actually decreases the person’s attention on everything else happening at the moment.
He said jurors must consider “the fallibility of memory under high levels of stress.”
But he conceded the witness reports could be accurate in the end, repeating judgment must be left to the jury to make, not himself.
The trial is in its fourth day today and scheduled to conclude on Friday.
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