Eyewitness Testimony: Its Uses and Shortcomings.

Eyewitness testimony is an important line of evidence in courts, but one on which there has been an over reliance. Eye witness testimony is usually the first step in an investigation, and is relied on when there is no suspects. Eyewitness testimonies are given by those who see the crime take place, and are often gained at crime scenes when police ask for information. They are used to gain an understanding of the crime, the situation and of course, what the perpetrator looks like.

Witness testimonies aid the police in knowing what the criminal looks like, when they are a new offender it can help with the generation of images such as drawings (Howitt, 2010). These can later be used to identify the suspect, furthermore eye witnesses are expected to identify the person they believe they saw from a line-up and/or photos (Howitt, 2010). Although this may seem like a fool-proof, accurate process, there are errors which one may not have thought about. For example, deliberately or otherwise, witnesses can be influenced by the questions asked by investigators and are influenced by the amount of time elapsed between the statement and the event. This is not to say that all eyewitness testimony is less than useful, some can be accurate.

However, being able to accurately give statement on what was seen relies on the memory of the witness (Loftus, 2013). Memory is a fragile object, influenced by many things. Fraser (2014) discussed how memory could be altered. It is important to know that it is a rarity in which any memory – however important – is a full one. One would be hard pressed (and arguably it is impossible) to encode all cues, environmental and social, at any given event. The encoding of information under stress is negatively affected, and often match the mood and thought processes of the witness at the time (Ryan et al, 2008). Information that is encoded is stored in numerous locations in the brain. Consequently when a memory is retrieved, the gaps within the memory are filled in and become reconstructed memories. Furthermore Eysenck and Keane (2008) explain in their chapter about memory that when a memory is retrieved it becomes weaker, and needs to be re-encoded to be stored. During this process of recoding, the memory can be changed and altered, particularly by current discourses and cognitions. Consequently, the concept of false memories as proposed by Loftus (2013) are important. False memories are those memories which one believes to be true, but are influenced by information gained through discourse and reconsideration.

Evidence in a study by Loftus and Palmer (1974) indicated the importance of careful wording when asking someone to recall what they saw at the scene of a crime. What she looked at was around the language used when asking someone to recall a car crash. The participants were each shown a video of two cars colliding and were asked to estimate how fast the cars were going when they crashed and how fast they were going when the smashed into each other – both questions generated different results.

Fraser (2014) extends beyond recollection of witnessed events. He suggested that courts and criminal justice systems should take into account the circumstances of the event the witness is discussing. The Innocence Project has exposed numerous cases where people have been wrongly convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony, which is why it is of importance that acknowledgement is achieved for the errors of testimonies prior to biases in memories.

Fraser offers a case study of a man convicted for murder based on the witness testimonies of experts and witnesses who saw him shoot out of a car window and kill a man, at night in a suburban location. The evidence given in the witnesses' statements implicated the man as the witness believed that they saw the man who was convicted for the murder clearly, at 4 feet, within the car. However, this is not possible given the circumstances, which were not considered by the jury.

Furthermore, cognitive psychology suggests weaknesses in the very idea of eyewitness testimony. People are vulnerable to attribution biases and are influenced by schemas. Both of which add to the reconstructed memories mentioned by Fraser (2014). Cognitive models mention also explain change blindness, the slight changes in a situation to which the human processing system is unaware (Davies and Heines, 2007). Change blindness can be a fundamental error, encouraging the reconstructed memories mentioned by Fraser (2014).

Despite the mentioned problems with eyewitness accounts however, they remain very important in the convictions of defendants in court. Even when eyewitness testimonies are discredited in court they result in approximately 60% of convictions and 75% in cases where they are not discredited (Loftus, 1974). This is particularly worrying when one considers that there is evidence suggesting the demographics of the witness affect the accuracy of the accounts given. These are demographics which affect mostly memory and perceptions. For example, those who have neuropsychological deficits such as alzheimer's, amnesia and even mental health problems such as PTSD (which often occurs after witnessing crimes; Sparr and Brenner, 2005) can have problems with perceptions, encoding and the retrieval of memories (Sparr and Brenner, 2005). Furthermore, visually impaired witnesses are likely to have inaccuracies in their accounts of the event. Finally those who are likely to suffer most from poor memory, such as the old and young, are likely to make errors when given statements (Pozzulo & Lindsay, 1998). Children are also poor witnesses for giving evidence as they are likely to be influenced by families, particularly parents and other authority figures, on top of poorer memory than their adult counterparts (Poole & White, 1991; Goodman et al, 1990).

Despite juries believing that the higher levels of confidence by the witness indicates the higher accuracy of the accounts given, there is a very low rate of truth in this. Witnesses who have false and reconstructed memories believe them to be the truth, and when recalling them they recall them as though they were the truth, with the confidence afforded to such (Loftus, 2013; Fraser, 2014).

However, when evaluating the usefulness of eyewitness testimony, we should take into account the age of the research around this. The research is relatively old, meaning that it may have been undertaken in days where surveillance and the use of CCTV technologies were not as prominent as they are currently. Eyewitness testimony can now often be verified on its accuracy, to some extent by the use of CCTV footage, which although not perfect, can act as assistance in verifying some facts (e.g. the level of vision the witness may have actually had) which can act as a strong way to discredit information given by witnesses where false information is given.

In conclusion to the above, eyewitness testimony has its uses and is arguably a very good starting point, however should not be used as a single point of evidence or assessed purely on the confidence and supposed accuracy of the account. Multiple factors such as environmental, social and cognitive elements can affect the accuracy of the testimony. So can the physical attributes and demographics of the criminal and the witness.

Latest articles