Eyewitness Testimony and False Confessions

Human brain NIH

Recently, 48 Hours aired an episode called “The Accuser” profiling Ryan Ferguson who, since 2005, has been serving a 40-year sentence for the second-degree murder of Kent Heitholt. Although in the fall of 2012 a judge denied granting Ferguson a new trial, the 48 Hours portrayal of the case suggests he could actually be innocent.

Besides there being no physical evidence tying Ferguson to the crime, key eyewitnesses Jerry Trump and Charles Erickson (who is serving 25 years for the same murder) both recanted their statements that placed Ferguson at the scene. Trump said he felt pressure to identify Ferguson as being in the Columbia Daily Tribune parking lot (where the murder took place) that night and Erickson said he lied. In fact, Erickson said he couldn’t remember anything of the October 31, 2001 murder, even though he confessed to the police that he and Ferguson were responsible.

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This case brings to mind two areas particularly poignant to forensic psychologists: the unreliability of eyewitness testimony and false confessions.

Eyewitness Testimony

According to the Innocence Project, “Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in nearly 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.”

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus is known as the researcher who brought the issue of inaccurate eyewitness testimony to light and she is one of the most sought after forensic psychologists to provide expert testimony in court. “One of the things that we know about memory for very upsetting experiences, traumatic experiences, is that the memory does not work like a videotape recorder,” said Dr. Loftus in a Frontline interview. “…The process is much more complicated, and actually what’s happening is you’re storing bits and pieces of the experience. Later, when you try to tell somebody what happened, you are in some sense reconstructing that experience, you’re piecing it together and essentially telling a story about your experience.”

False Confessions

When it comes to false confessions, the Innocence Project states, “In about 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty.”

If in fact Charles Erickson did not commit the murder, what would make him admit to police that he did? The Innocence Project explains that those you are innocent admit to guilt for a variety of reasons, from coercion and fear to being mentally impaired due to a substance or illness.

Linda A. Henkel and Kimberley J. Coffman’s article “Memory distortions in coerced false confessions: a source monitoring framework analysis” reveals that in the case of some of those who make false confessions, “they come to genuinely believe they committed the crimes and sometimes create vivid ‘memories’ of their activities.”

In the case of Charles Erickson, he woke up one day (two years after the murder) and wondered if he was responsible because he had blacked out that night due to consuming alcohol and drugs. I have limited knowledge of psychology and this particular case, but it did remind me of a book I read on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and how some OCD individuals irrationally believe they are responsible for heinous acts that they did not actually commit. It makes me wonder what kind of psychological evaluations have been performed on Erickson.

On a case that is hinging on eyewitness testimony and a possible false confession, is justice being served?