Psychologist’s Research Leads to Reevaluation of His Own Testimony in Decade Old Trial

It takes a lot of guts for some people to admit they’re wrong. It would likely take even more guts for someone to engage in years of clinical research to prove a hunch that they may have been wrong about something many years in the past. However, University of Washington psychology professor Jeffrey Loftus did just that after his testimony in a 1999 murder trial played a major role in the conviction of four men.

Sixteen years ago, teenager John Hartman was beaten to death by a group of assailants in Fairbanks, Alaska. The so called Fairbanks Four, George Frese, Marvin Roberts, Kevin Pease and Eugene Vent, were convicted of the crime based largely on the testimony of Fairbanks resident Arlo Olsen.

Olsen claimed he witnessed the four men beating Hartman, and Loftus was called in to confirm the validity of Olsen’s claims. Lawyer’s wanted to confirm that Olsen was in the appropriate psychological and physiological state at the time of the crime in order to be seen as reliable in his ability to accurately identify the perpetrators.

Loftus testified that it would have been possible for Olsen to accurately identify the criminals, but, after the trial was over, Loftus started to reconsider one aspect of Olsen’s testimony. Olsen witnessed the crime from 550 feet away, a distance that Loftus began to believe was too far for Olsen to have accurately identified the Fairbanks Four.

Loftus quickly went to work. He engaged in research over the past decade focused around the amount of blurring that occurs over a long distance. He used that research to create a program that could simulate the likely amount of blurring that a witness might experience. As a result, Loftus now believes that the distance was altogether too far for Olsen to have accurately identified anyone.

As a result, the Fairbanks Four have issued an exoneration request that is currently under review. Loftus’s updated testimony could very well lead to an overturning of the original verdict and the freedom of the Fairbanks Four. Loftus’s research could also play an important role in the psychological evaluation of witnesses in cases for years to come.