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Alibis: To Believe or Not to Believe1

Alibis: To Believe or Not to Believe?

Sarah Shurbert

Winona State University

Alibis: To Believe or Not to Believe?

“Where were you on March 18th at 4:30 in the afternoon?”

Many of us, off the top of our heads, would not be able to answer this question.  Where was I during the afternoon on March 18th…I do not have a clue.  If I took the time to stop and figure it out I could maybe come up with an idea of what I was doing.  The 18th was a Saturday.  I know this because St. Patty’s Day was on a Friday this year and everyone knows that St. Patty’s Day is always on March 17th.  The last couple of Saturdays I have not had to close the store, so at 4:30 in the afternoon I had an hour left of my six and a half hour shift at Target.  

The above question is worded in more technical terms, but we are constantly bombarded with questions of this sort in our everyday lives.  A boyfriend may want to know where his girlfriend was when he called on Saturday night and why she didn’t answer.  Whether we realize it or not, fabricating alibis for ourselves in our social world, is a pretty common occurrence.  Fortunately, most of us have not had to provide an alibi for where we were on the night a crime was committed.  Fortunately most of us have not had to account for where we were on the afternoon of March 18th in front of courtroom and try to convince a jury that we indeed were where we said we were.

The everyday definition of an alibi is used to refer to the claim that is proffered by a suspect in a criminal investigation.  In the legal sense, it is referred to as a defense that places the defendant at the relevant time of the crime somewhere else besides the scene involved, and so making it impossible for one to be the guilty party (Olson and Wells, 2004).  

Alibi research is a fairly new field of study, however, a few noteworthy studies have been done, one by Scott Culhane and Harmon Hosch, and another done by Elizabeth Olson and Gary Wells.  Both studies will be discussed in some detail later on in the paper.  Elizabeth Olson has also gone on to do some research on her own in the topic of alibi effectiveness.  There have been some legal writings on the topic of alibis but it focuses mainly on the two technicalities of the alibi defense.  These technicalities are the prior notice rule and the issue of instructions to the jury.

The focus of the Culhane and Hosch study (2004) was to determine the impact of alibi witness’ testimony, the effect of testimony by alibi witnesses who have or who do not have a relationship with the defendant, and the impact of eyewitness’ confidence on juror decision making.  In a study done by McAllister and Bregman, if the defendant had an alibi witness who was of no relation to the defendant, the number of guilty verdicts decreased (McAllister and Bregman, 1989, as cited by Culhane and Hosch, 2004).  This finding helped to direct the attention of the Culhane and Hosch study.  Three variables were manipulated.  The first variable was the type of alibi witness testimony which had three levels: corroboration, non-corroboration, and ambiguous.  The next variable manipulated was the degree of the eyewitness’ confidence and the final variable was the relationship of the alibi witness to the defendant; for example neighbor vs. girlfriend.  It was hypothesized that an alibi witness who had no relationship with the defendant, e.g. a neighbor, would be most believable hence reducing the number of guilty verdicts.  It was also hypothesized that a person who is closely associated with the defendant, such as a girlfriend,

WSU Psychology Student Journal, Issue ASarah Shurbert

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