Nature of Testimony

Farah Farhat

The forensic scientist must be able to explain his or her findings to a judge or jury in a court of law. This is one of the key factors that distinguish the forensic sciences. For forensic science purposes, an expert may be thought of as a person who possesses a combination of knowledge, skills, and aptitudes in a particular area that permit him or her to draw inferences from facts that the average person would not be competent to do. (Houck, 2009)

In 1893 James Cattell performed the first research in the field of forensic psychology. Through his research he explored the psychology of testimony by asking 56 college students a series of four questions:

James McKeen Cattell

  1. Do chestnut or oak trees lose their leaves earlier in autumn?
  2. Do horses in the field stand with head or tail to the wind?
  3. In which direction doe the seeds of an apple point?
  4. What was the weather one week ago today?

*He also asked students to rate their confidence.

Through his research Cattell concluded that confidence did not always equal correctness. Some students were confident regardless of whether their answers were correct, while others were always insecure, even when they provided the right answer. The level of accuracy was also surprising. For instance, for the weather question, students gave a wide range of responses, which were equally distributed by the types of weather possible that month (Tartakovsky, 2011). Cattell’s research lead to the interests of other psychologists to recreate and study his findings. Prior to this experiment little was known about the specifics of how eyewitness testimony was not consistently reliable. This study paved the way for researches and others to look at specific circumstances when memory is more or less reliable, and how to identify them.

In 1896 Albert von Schrenck-Notzing stated that pretrial coverage regarding court cases

Albert von Schrenck-Notzing

clouds the minds of witnesses memories due to their inability to separate their own original accounts with the press reports. Schrenck-Notzing provided an opinion testimony in the trial of a man accused of murdering three women and backed his opinion using psychological research.

In the 1962 court case Jenkins v. U.S., the federal appellate court ruled that (a) psychologists with appropriate training and expertise were qualified to offer expert testimony on matters of mental disorder and (b) possession of a medical degree was not necessary for such testimony. Since that time, psychologists have become involved in the legal decision-making process in increasing numbers (Otto, 2002).

Today forensic scientists are brought to court in order to aid the jury and judge in their final verdicts. Scientific evidence can be powerful due to it’s generation from scientific data, which evokes the power it has inherited through the years. Scientific data can account as a suspect in a trial due to the weight of it’s presence in a court room (Houck, 2009).

Media References (in order of appearance):

The history of aps: A timeline. (2005). Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/anniversary/timeline.cfm

Tartakovsky, M. (2011, June 07). How forensic psychology began and flourished. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/06/07/how-forensic-psychology-began-and-flourished/

 

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