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San Francisco Friday, 16 February, 2001, 22:44 GMT
Juries 'deaf to earwitness failings'
Graphic BBC
By Jonathan Amos in San Francisco

Earwitness accounts in trials are likely to be highly unreliable and should be treated with extreme caution by juries, a major science conference in America has been told.

Although there are few cases that have hung on what a witness may or may not have heard, there have been some famous examples where voice as opposed to visual identification has formed crucial evidence.

Perhaps the most famous was the Lindbergh murder trial in the 1930s, in which Bruno Hauptmann was sentenced to death after a witness claimed the defendant's voice was the same one heard shouting "Hey Doc - over here" in a cemetery 33 months previously.

Larry Solan, from the Brooklyn Law School, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that such earwitness accounts should be given short shrift by the judicial system - but, sadly, they were not.

Whispered voice

"The law assumes that once someone has heard a voice, they can recall that voice and report it accurately," he said. "Research has shown that that is not the case.

"The reliability of earwitness accounts differs under the circumstances. We are quite good at recognising voices that we're very familiar with and very bad at recognising voices with which we're only slightly familiar or unfamiliar and have heard only once.

"And yet, the law does not make the distinctions among these different circumstances."

Studies have shown that people vary in their abilities to recognise voices. Young adults are better at it than young children and old people. We also have difficulty recognising a voice if it is speaking with a foreign accent or is whispering.

Flawed system

Stressed voices can sound very different, and the number of exposures to a voice and the time since it was last heard also have a crucial bearing on recognition.

"Not only are we not good at identifying voices, but we think we're much better at it than we are," said Professor Solan. "So when we are on jury duty and we are listening to a trial and somebody says, 'Yes, the voice that I heard 11 months ago is the voice of the defendant', we will tend to overestimate the accuracy of that identification."

Professor Solan said the courts in the US had ignored the work of many linguists and psychologists. He said the system of "minimal familiarity" which meant juries were simply presented with evidence and asked to weigh its importance was flawed because the studies had shown juries gave earwitness accounts undue weight.

"It's time the judicial system sat up and took notice and started listening to what the linguists and psychologists have found."

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Prof Larry Solan
"We think we're much better at it than we are"
See also:

26 Jan 99 | Anaheim 99
22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
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