Eyewitness testimony has a strange place in American law. On one hand, eyewitness testimony is the most sought-after of all types of testimony. On the other, eye witness testimony is notoriously unreliable from a scientific perspective. In this sample criminal justice essay from the talented Ultius writers, the validity of eyewitness testimony is examined.
Is Eyewitness Testimony Reliable?
An eyewitness is a person who witnessed the occurrence of a particular event. Eyewitness testimony is defined as an account given by a bystander or witness relating to the occurrence of a specific event. This testimony is mainly based on recollection from memory, usually short-term rather than long-term memory. A reliable witness must possess the following main characteristics:
- Adequate powers of perception
- Be able to remember and report well
- Be able and willing to tell the truth
These characteristics are what compose an accurate account by the eyewitness making his statement viable.
The role of the eyewitness
Prosecutors rely on eyewitness testimony to cement their case because a personal account by someone who was present during a crime supersedes all other kind of evidence. Jurors are human beings and humans tend to believe what other people claim to have seen with their own eyes easily. Therefore, juries are prone to be unable to properly distinguish between a false and accurate eyewitness testimony, especially if the witness seems believable. Thus, the defense attorneys have to work harder to dispute the credibility of the witness in order to win their case (Tversky, 2002).
Time is a factor
There exists a time period from the actual occurrence of the event or crime to the time the eyewitness presents his statement to the police, his interrogation by the prosecutor, deposition by the defense attorney and finally, his statement in court. This time is one of the many factors that affect the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Memories are susceptible to manipulation, alteration and bias (Azar, 2011). All these factors are brought about within the course of time, which may affect the accuracy of the testimony. Inaccurate testimony can lead to mistrial, being found in contempt of court and wrongful convictions.
Variables affecting eyewitness testimony
Every story told by any person has a purpose, which is usually to capture the attention of the people we tell the story to. Therefore, the eyewitness may exaggerate or omit certain details to make the story interesting to the jurors. This is why it is important to have an eyewitness who is willing to tell the truth and who has accurate power of recollection. This does not mean that an eyewitness may recall inaccurately on purpose, though it is common. It is merely due to brain activity, which shows that eyewitness may be unreliable at times. Aside from this, the reliance on memory is the major weakness of the eyewitness testimony. There are many additional variables affecting the accuracy of this testimony and they are explained as follows:
1. Age of the eyewitness
This variable goes hand in hand with the suggestibility theory. The theory states that the lawyers or other third parties have the power to subconsciously or otherwise incorporate into the memory of the eyewitness certain details that alter the original memory. Usually, young people and the elderly are susceptible to suggestibility. For example, a prosecutor may suggest to the witness that a suspect was in the scene by showing them footage from the crime such that the witness may conclude a person was the perpetrator by simply being shown footage that he was there at the time of the incident (Loftus, 1980). This practice walks a fine line, however, as accusations of age discrimination can sometimes result.
2. Reconstructive memory
This variable is based on research conducted by psychologists in the American Psychological Association. It states that people store information in ways that make sense to them. This is done through schemas, which are ways of mentally organization information and events (Azar, 2011). Due to the period that exists between occurrence and telling of the account, the mind is likely to reconstruct the memory. In doing so, new details may be added and some may be omitted. Gap filling and reliance on assumptions lead to poor reconstruction, which negates the reliability of testimony. For instance, the eyewitness may force his memory to align with the profile of the suspect, such that he may recall a scar he had not actually seen if the suspect in custody has the scar.
3. Weapon Focus
In cases where a weapon was involved, the eyewitnesses usually tend to focus more on the weapon and not the person holding it, whether or not they were wearing a mask. Guns and gun violence are particular areas of concern in this case. Due to the shock of seeing the weapon, eyewitnesses tend not to look at the face of the attacker, thus making testimony unreliable. Since they did not entirely focus on the face of the perpetrator, they will tend to fill in the gaps with faces or body features that are common among suspects or simply force their memory to integrate the suspect arrested by the police. It is common for witnesses who discriminate racially to be affected by this variable. For instance, some may state that the suspect was a black or Latina man simply because of the racial profiling and stereotyping associated with these people, yet they did not actually see the face of the perpetrator.
4. Anxiety or Stress
This is common in crimes or accidents that are extremely shocking or nerve wrecking such as train or airplane accidents and terrorist incidents among others. However, studies show that due to the shock experienced during the situation, most eyewitnesses are usually able to accurately recall the experience. This recollection is even better with time. Researchers associate the high level of brain activity experienced in such situations with high flow of adrenaline making forgetfulness almost impossible. However, most defense attorneys tend to tear eyewitnesses apart in such scenarios stating that the intensity of the situation may force wrong memories or exclusion of important details.
5. False memories
False memory is basically a lie told to the jurors by the eyewitness. It is common in witnesses who have been paid off to keep a suspect out of jail. However, false memory may also occur in another way, such that the eyewitness, in his recollection may discover that he was wrong, but in order to save face, sticks to the original story. One way of identifying a false memory eyewitness is by noting their level of confidence; witness confidence is higher for incorrect information and it is more detailed compared to an accurate memory (Azar, 2011). This supersedes the entire process of trial because it may lead to wrongful conviction or acquittal.
6. Type of questioning
The type of questioning by attorneys may affect eyewitness testimony.
A. Interrogation – Questioning in court is often very intimidating and if the witness has not been well prepared he may alter his story due to the pressure associated with taking the stand. Attorneys may ask leading questions or destroy the confidence of the eyewitness making his testimony unreliable. Once the jurors sense that, the eyewitness is faltering or uneasy, they tend to disregard his entire account and conclude that he is lying.
B. Character assassination – It is common for defense attorneys to discredit the eyewitness in terms of character. For instance, despite a witness’s accurate recollection of the crime and identification of the suspect, the attorney may bring up certain things that the eyewitness may have done in the past that may discredit his testimony. These discrediting factors are usually habits or past mistakes such as driving under the influence, gambling, addiction and so on, aiming at discrediting the witness.
Due to these methods, leading and intimidating questions by either of the attorneys may lead to unreliable testimony.
Reliance on human memory and character are the pillars of eyewitness testimony. However, as shown by the stated factors and examples, this method of relaying an account of the crime is not bulletproof. There exist several ways that the information may be altered or manipulated including the biases of the eyewitness himself. In addition, the eyewitness himself may be a hindrance, due to their appearance or background.
All these factors prove that eyewitness testimony is not entirely reliable and should be questioned. In her book, Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget, Elizabeth Loftus states:
“Memory is imperfect. This is because we often do not see things accurately in the first place. However, even if we take in a reasonably accurate picture of some experience, it does not necessarily stay perfectly intact in memory. Another force is at work. The memory traces can actually undergo distortion. With the passage of time, with proper motivation, with the introduction of special kinds of interfering facts, the memory traces seem sometimes to change or become transformed. These distortions can be quite frightening, for they can cause us to have memories of things that never happened. Even in the most intelligent among us is memory thus malleable” (Loftus, 1980).
This shows that memory cannot be relied upon solely in the application of the rule of law and deliverance of justice and methods of improving eyewitness testimony, such as the cognitive interview should be highly considered and used.
Azar, B. (2011). The limits of eyewitness testimony. American Psychologists Association, 42(11), 26.
Eyewitness Testimony. (n.d.). – Simply Psychology. Retrieved October 31, 2013, from http://www.simplypsychology.org/eyewitness-testimony.html
Loftus, E. F. (1980). Memory: surprising new insights into how we remember and why we forget. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.
Tversky, B. (2002). The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony. Stanford Journal of Legal Studies, 1, 1.