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Troubled witnesses - Professor outlines reasons witnesses flip-flop in their statements

Published:Wednesday | October 26, 2016 | 12:50 AMRomario Scott

A professor in the Department of Behavioural and Social Science at the Northern Caribbean University has pronounced that witnesses in criminal cases are likely to flip-flop in their testimonies and statements when there is lack of confidence in the criminal justice system or when they feel threatened.

Professor Dadria Lewis on Monday told The Gleaner that some witnesses are afraid to testify in court because of fear for their lives or those of their family members.

“If somebody is not feeling safe, you will hear of the cases where witnesses don’t turn up or you cannot find them or they change their minds to say they weren’t there or they did not see. It is sometimes the case where people have got to them or they have been threatened,” Lewis said.

The professor is also of the view that witnesses sometimes predetermine in their minds whether there is enough evidence to secure a conviction, and their co-operation then becomes a function of the initial strength of the evidence.

“Even though the act may have in fact happened, sometimes it’s hard, especially for children. There may not have been enough evidence to convict, [they think] the person will then walk free … sometimes they wonder if it is worth it,” she said.

“In their mind, they will be asking, ‘if this person goes free, what happens to me?’,” she further reasoned.

As a result, she mentioned that the approach of the initial investigators plays a significant part in how the witnesses cooperate with the system in the long run if any at all.

Lewis also believes that the facilities at some of the country’s police stations are not conducive to witnesses making full disclosure.

“Witnesses need privacy and many of our police stations do not have that. They need to feel that the information that they give will be kept confidential but, when you look at the set up at some of our police stations, it does not allow for that,” she argued.

Continued the professor: “Sometimes the police question somebody and it’s in an open office setting or shared cubicles and certainly that situation does not contribute to someone feeling safe and the information they give will be kept confidential. Somebody could be at a next door, room or within the same space and overhear … and what ends up happening is that they carry the news outside or back to an accused.”

The professor said  he supported the idea of recording witnesses, but warned that having made the initial statement on tape, witnesses would be again contemplating their safety as there would be no way to change the statement or lie in the event they have been threatened.

She called for the improvement of the witness protection programme and an increase in guarantee of protection of those witnesses who are brave enough to come forward.

In the meantime, Horace Levy, executive director of Jamaicans For Justice, said he wanted the police to improve their investigative capacity for gathering forensic and scientific evidence instead of relying on eye witnesses, given the fact that they can be corrupted.

“There are so many ways witnesses can be turned away from persisting their testimony. Given the level of intimidating influence that exists in the country, that’s where [collecting forensics and scientific evidence] the focus should be at,” he said.