Research that Impacts Canadian courtrooms

Janelle Marchand is hoping her research on the fallibility of eyewitness testimony will help make a difference in courtrooms across Canada.

Marchand, of Antigonish, NS, has been working closely with Dr. Ian Fraser to demonstrate the importance of including expert witnesses on the fallibility of eyewitness testimony in the country’s legal proceedings.

“When a person is presenting their eyewitness testimony—an account a bystander or victim will give in the courtroom—a lot of the time they’re telling the truth but their mind faults them, so what they say isn’t exactly what they saw,” Marchand said.

“There’s nobody in the courtroom to say ‘yes we should use this information’ or ‘no we shouldn’t use this information’ because right now the use of an expert witnesses on the fallibility of eye witness testimony is often ruled inadmissible in our Canadian courtrooms. This could lead to a lot of wrongful convictions.”

With no expert witness, the onus is left on lawyers, judges, and juries to decide what to do with this information. In other surveys and studies relating to knowledge on the fallibility of eye witness testimony, judges and lawyers score an average of 55 per cent.

Marchand wanted to focus her study on jurors to see if the science concerning the fallibility of eyewitness testimony could amount to common sense to the average person.

“I surveyed 225 eligible jurors and gave them statements that an expert on the fallibility of eyewitness memory would be able to distinguish between true and false in a courtroom proceeding,” she said. “The participants in my study scored around 63.2 per cent.”

The recent STU grad, who earned an honors in Psychology and minor in Criminology, said her research serves as a baseline to what Dr. Fraser has already accomplished in surveying prosecutors, defense attorneys, and police officers. 

“At the end of the day, it may be best for this type of evidence to be presented by an expert. Dr. Fraser’s research, along with mine, demonstrates that legal professionals who are currently in the system do not fully comprehend the knowledge,” Marchand said. “The Supreme Court of Canada should reconsider the value of expert evidence in our justice system.”

Seeing the Big Picture

This project is a continuation of Marchand’s thesis, which she completed under the supervision of Fraser. She said working closely with her professor has been an invaluable experience.

“He taught me so many skills and helped me learn how to develop a professional relationship, which I use in my work every day,” she said.

Coming from a small community and a high school with only eight students in the graduating class, Marchand was drawn to STU for its size and focus on liberal arts. The knowledge she brings from multiple fields has been an asset in her position as an Indigenous Researcher studying Aboriginal populations.

“My skills from STU are benefitting me in the real world,” she said. “At STU we see the larger picture—we see Psychology, we see Criminology, we see Philosophy, and we see how it all ties together.”

In the future, Marchand plans to pursue a master’s degree with the ultimate goal of working in public policy or for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Janelle is looking for more participants for her research. If you would like to participate in her study, read the message below and follow the link to her survey.

This is an anonymous, online survey entitled, "Survey Assessing Common Knowledge of Eyewitness Testimonies”. The purpose of this study is to determine the level of knowledge of potential jurors concerning the science dealing with eyewitness memory. If you are a Canadian citizen and are at least 18 years of age, you are welcome to participate. The survey should take approximately 10-15 minutes. You will be presented with a series of statements to which you may indicate agreement, disagreement or you do not know. This research project has been approved by the St. Thomas University Research Ethics Board (REB #2016-20).