Eyewitness testimony refers to a witness’s memory of an event (often related to crimes or accidents) they witnessed or experienced and can often prove highly influential in court cases.
However, it’s essential to bear in mind that eyewitness memories may be inaccurate due to factors like stress, memory decay, unconscious bias, or suggestion.
1. Eyewitnesses are more likely to remember details of a crime.
Eyewitness testimony has long been considered one of the most vital pieces of evidence to present in the court of law. Yet research indicates that eyewitness testimony may be unreliable. Studies have shown that eyewitnesses frequently misidentify criminal perpetrators, resulting in wrongful convictions (Garrett 2011). False eyewitness identifications have even been implicated in 75% of DNA exoneration cases (Garrett).
Internal and external factors can impede eyewitness memory accuracy, including age, attention, motivation, skill, stress level, health conditions, prejudice, and time passing by. Contextual information or suggestive questioning may also adversely impact eyewitness memory accuracy.
Many researchers have conducted experiments to study the impact of various factors on eyewitness memory. Some research has demonstrated that being asked numerous times can negatively influence an eyewitness’ memory – meaning the more questions are asked of them, the greater their risk of forgetting important details of an incident. Other factors that influence eyewitness memories accurately include lineup use and type, as well as any form of racism bias present in society.
Researchers studying eyewitness memory have predominantly focused their work on adults despite children being eyewitnesses to crimes themselves. It’s essential to keep in mind that similar principles apply when interviewing child witnesses, although children may miss details more quickly than adults do. They may also be particularly susceptible to PEI. For this reason, law enforcement officials must take extra precautions when working with child eyewitnesses.
Eyewitnesses tend to remember more peripheral details about crimes, like their location and time of occurrence, than central ones, such as the suspect’s face. This is often because witnesses tend to focus on weapons used during crimes instead of remembering what their faces look like; therefore, police officers must ask eyewitnesses several questions regarding the incident as well as using various lineups with them.
2. Eyewitnesses are more likely to remember the perpetrator’s face.
Eyewitness testimony is a critical element of criminal trials. When testifying before a courtroom, witnesses often provide their accounts of what transpired and who is involved with any potential crimes committed against them. Unfortunately, numerous studies demonstrate how eyewitness testimony may lead to inaccurate convictions of innocent parties that result in jail terms for innocent people.
Various internal and external factors can cause eyewitness errors. Internal factors may include age, attention span, skill sets, stress level, and prejudice, while external influences include contextual information such as suggestive questioning or biased lineups.
As well as these factors, how a witness is interviewed can also affect their memory of events. If a witness discusses their case with others and remembers more details about it as a result of being reminded about it by other people, then they would not discuss it directly with anyone.
An additional factor that can lead to errors by eyewitnesses is the speed at which they are asked questions. Researchers conducted studies with students estimating the speeds of particular objects and discovered their accuracy depended on whether their questioner asked too quickly or too slowly; this shows how the rate of questioning affects recalling and identifying suspects by witnesses.
Time can also play a key role in witness accuracy. For instance, when exposed to a suspect for only 30 seconds, they may fail to focus on paying close attention to the facial and other physical features of their victim, making it hard for them to distinguish between their target and anyone who may look similar.
Eyewitnesses may make mistakes due to being more likely to recall a perpetrator’s face than any other details from the crime. This is likely because facial features play such an integral part in our appearance that it’s easy to identify them; also, facial features may reveal emotions and attitudes more quickly than any other indicator.
3. Eyewitnesses are more likely to identify a suspect in a lineup.
Eyewitnesses in the US are frequently asked to identify suspects from a lineup. This usually involves showing multiple photographs or a live lineup of individuals to them and asking them to identify one perpetrator among them; occasionally, only one photo is shown and asked simply whether or not the target-present lineup (TPL).
The conduct of lineup viewing can have a substantial effect on how accurately witnesses identify individuals in an investigation. To reduce any chance of inadvertent cues or reactions being given by law enforcement officers who are not directly involved, if possible blinded procedures should be used when possible to limit contextual information or suggestive questioning impacting on identification accuracy. Furthermore, witnesses must not interact with officers during viewing as this can create biased feedback and increase confidence in selection decisions made.
Studies have demonstrated that witnesses’ confidence tends to grow over time – a phenomenon known as “confidence hardening.” Furthermore, witnesses often experience immense pressure to select accurately in their selection and will choose individuals they believe best match the original description given to them in lineups. Witnesses frequently share their experiences with others or listen to media coverage related to cases they witnessed; they can even tell these accounts directly to individuals whom they identified in lineups.
An exaggerated sense of certainty can have grave repercussions for those accused of crimes, particularly when they are convicted. Therefore, judges should instruct juries during trials regarding some of the limitations associated with eyewitness testimony; however, jurors often find them difficult to comprehend and implement; research also indicates they don’t always have their intended effect; nonetheless, if the evidence is strong and the jury believes that witness identification was accurate, then their verdict may be appropriate.
4. Eyewitnesses are more likely to testify during a trial.
Well-recognized evidence that eyewitnesses make errors when identifying suspects in police lineups has serious repercussions; consequently, psychological scientists have challenged some popular assumptions permeating both legal systems and general society regarding memory reports of eyewitnesses. Psychological scientists argue that eyewitness accounts may not always be reliable even when witnesses are confident of their accuracy, while suggestive questioning techniques could help make inaccurate reports more precise.
Eyewitness accounts may also be affected by factors related to lighting and room construction, their internal expectations about what they should see, as well as those put upon them by law enforcement (see Insight 8 for recommendations for combatting such biases); this means a witness’ confidence may not correlate directly with accuracy in reporting.
Loftus 1979 remains one of the best accessible books on this topic, and post-event memory malleability is still a central tenet in this field. Recently, several eyewitness studies, such as Wells 1978 have drawn attention to distinguishing between “system variables,” which can be controlled by justice systems, and “estimator variables,” which cannot.
Despite these problems, some researchers and legal experts continue to hold that eyewitness testimony can be trusted. These opinions come with the caveat that law enforcement officials must be careful in collecting eyewitness testimony in order to minimize error rates and any associated error rates. Eyewitness testimony, much like other forms of physical evidence, may become inaccurate when collected under circumstances that fail to account for psychological factors that influence its accuracy. Expert testimony about eyewitness identification’s limitations or jury instructions are two methods to educate jurors about these natural psychological phenomena and help ensure they do not fall into common traps.