BEIRUT: The reliability of witness memory was once again the focus of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon Monday, with expert witness Dr. Siegfried Sporer giving evidence a second time for the defense team of Hassan Oneissi. Four defendants, including Oneissi, have been indicted for the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in an attack that killed 21 others.
It was a fraught day at the tribunal, with President of the Trial Chamber Judge David Re requesting several times the witness refrain from delving too deep into statistical analysis and to instead focus on his conclusions. One piece of evidence, titled “An Integrative Framework for the Psychology of Eyewitness Testimony,” particularly drew the judge’s ire.
Sporer, an expert in forensic and criminal psychology at the University of Giessen, explained to the court that social factors can play a significant impact on the response of a witness attempting to identify a suspect, with marked differences when the suspect was “outgroup” or “ingroup,” meaning from outside or inside the witness’s social group respectively.
“Research shows that identification of outgroup members, witnesses use less strict criteria. They are less likely to say, ‘this was the person,’ than if the person was from their own group,” Sporer said. He noted “several witnesses mentioned that the [accused] had not a Lebanese accent but a Palestinian accent, and came from a different area.”
The expert said that “if we see an outgroup face there is a first step that we categorize the fact ... which to some people immediately signals this person is no longer of interest to me.”
Sporer was critical of many aspects of the prosecution’s identification process, particularly criticizing the photo board lineup used to identify Oneissi. Those chosen to take part in the lineup, he said, did not look sufficiently similar to the accused.
“The idea is you want the foils to be plausible alternatives but not identical twins,” Sporer said. “The purpose is not to confuse a witness but to make the task of a certain difficulty so as not to eliminate anyone.”
The defense witness noted if suspects share features in common with the suspect, but individually look very distinct, this can unfairly direct the witness’ attention. “There are about twice as many false identifications in low similarity lineups than high similarity lineups,” he said.
Sporer told the court that the position of a picture towards the middle of a photo board lineup can make it more likely to be identified by a witness, noting that witnesses scanning left to right as a result of their reading habits will often pick the fifth picture in a lineup of six.