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Alibis: To Believe or Not to Believe4

stranger

(difficult to fabricate, but possibly mistaken)

Non-Motivated Familiar

Other

(difficult to fabricate, not likely mistaken)

Most Believable

With this information in mind, I reviewed the following court case. This case was filed on the Lexis-Nexis database on February 28, 2006.  Defendant Mesa Rith and two others were charged with federal crimes for robbing a bank in November of 1998.  In exchange for a lesser sentence one of the two men identified the other two men by name, one of them being Mr. Rith.  A couple of eyewitnesses identified Mr. Rith as driving the getaway car, but Rith testified in his own defense.  His alibi: he was at his girlfriend’s house at the time of the crime making it impossible for him to be driving the getaway car.  According to Rith, his girlfriend and her brother, as well as three other family members could have accounted for his whereabouts during the time of the crime, but none of them were ever called to the witness stand.  On appeal Mr. Rith said his defense was ineffective because his attorney failed to present any of his alibi witnesses (U.S v. Rith, 2006). Had the alibi witnesses been allowed to testify would it really have helped Mr. Rith’s case?

Why is eyewitness testimony considered to be more believable than a solid alibi with documentation to back it up? If the alibi is not easily fabricated, why is it less believable than an eyewitness’ memory?  However, as illustrated in many studies done by Elizabeth Loftus, memory is more fallible than many of us believe it to be.  In fact, memory can be very suggestible as was shown in a study done by Loftus and Palmer in the 1970’s.  Subjects witnessed a car crash on video and were asked questions about the crash following.  The subjects were asked how fast the

cars were going when they ___(IV)____ into each other.  The independent variable in this case was a descriptive word for the crash.  The word varied from case to case some reading bumped, smashed into, collided with, and contacted.  A week later participants were asked to come back and they were again asked another question.  This time the question was:  was there broken glass at the scene of the accident?  The results showed that those who had the word “smashed into” for the IV reported that there was broken glass at the scene of the accident, when, in fact, there hadn’t been any (Loftus and Palmer, 1970, as cited by Miene, 2005).  Memory is fallible.  

This case was also proved in the Frontline video of “What Jennifer Saw”.  In July of 1984, two women were raped in about the same way in the same city in North Carolina.  One of the women, Jennifer Thompson, was 100% certain that Ronald Cotton was her attacker and identified him as such in a police line-up.  Another woman, who had been raped the same night as Jennifer did not identify Ronald Cotton as her attacker in a photo line-up or a police line-up.  Throughout the trial Jennifer Thompson’s allegation never once faltered; Ronald Cotton was her attacker and she was sticking to that.   In 1987, despite having an alibi (supported by family members), Mr. Cotton was convicted and sentenced to life plus 54 years in prison.  After Cotton had served a year or so of his sentence, a man who was already in prison confessed to another inmate that he had committed the rapes that Cotton was accused of.  In the spring of 1995, DNA evidence was taken to the lab to be tested.  These tests cleared Ronald Cotton of the crimes and matched the DNA to the man who had confessed to committing the crimes.  On June 30, 1995, Ronald Cotton was cleared of all crimes and released from prison (www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dna).

The Loftus study (1974) and the Jennifer Thompson/Ronald Cotton case clearly illustrates how problematic eyewitness identification can be.  The suggestibility and unreliability of memory should raise a red flag in the minds of jurors whenever someone asserts that

WSU Psychology Student Journal, Issue ASarah Shurbert

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