Eyewitness testimony: how reliable is it?

Psychology has been used in the court systems when the competency of a “suspect” needs to be measured to determine if they are able to stand trial. It has also been used when evaluating, classifying and determining if the “suspect” has a mental illness. During the past years we have seen an increase of psychology research when evaluating the credibility and reliability of eyewitness testimony when it is the sole evidence in the case (Gary L. Wells; John W. Turtle, 1993).

We have seen an increase of cases that carried a conviction of guilty being overturned by DNA testing when the sole evidence was based on eyewitness testimony, of 8,000 “suspects” arrested 2000 where excluded by DNA testing (k., Smith; V., Stinson; M., Prosser, 2003) . If the victim was convinced that she or he had identified the correct offender, then why is it that the conviction was overturned by DNA testing?

Case studies, and more recently DNA testing in the United States, have shown that mistaken eyewitness identification is responsible for more wrongful convictions than all other

causes combined (Yarmey, 1999). It is argued that scientific laboratory and field research can contribute to the court's better understanding of those variables which contribute to both accurate and mistaken eyewitness recall and identification. Attention is given to the value of common knowledge in prediction of eyewitness memory performance, to the major critiques of expert eyewitness testimony, and to the worth of legal safeguards designed to prevent false identification leading to wrongful convictions. Expert eyewitness testimony provides an opportunity for the tier of fact to be assisted in decision-making such that convictions of innocent suspects may be minimized, and the just conviction of guilty suspects maximized.

To the knowledge of the average person it might seem that there are no internal and external variables that affect eyewitness testimony, because we are so convinced that what we see is true. If you where involved in a hostage situation, do you think you would be able to identify the suspect in a line up when you only had a few seconds to see his or her face? Two types of hypotheses interest psychologists: causal hypotheses and associative hypotheses. The conclusions that can be reached from studies examining these hypotheses and the methods that should be used to investigate them differ. Causal hypotheses examine how a manipulation affects future events; where as associative hypotheses examine how often certain events co-occur (Wright, 2006).

There are plenty of variables that can affect eyewitness testimony from cross-racial identification, bias, accuracy, confidence, the time after the event occur, lineup, and priming (Wright, 2006). During the next paragraphs I will discuss how the variables above affect eyewitness testimony.

As we grow up we are raised with beliefs in our culture, and because some of the beliefs are bias we tend to generalize the bias to all the different cultures (k., Smith; V., Stinson; M., Prosser, 2003). We have our perception of how Hispanic people look, how Anglo people look, and African American people look. Since we have the perception we generalize it to the rest of the population. People that are eyewitness to a crime that are from a different race from the suspect, are more likely that they will make a wrong identification (k., Smith; V., Stinson; M., Prosser, 2003). (k., Smith; V., Stinson; M., Prosser, 2003) came to the conclusion when they conducted a study where they took N=232 students and the students were shown 2 separate 90-second video tapes of a staged crime were the “suspect” was of a different race than the group of students where. One of the videos included an African American “suspect” and the other included an Anglo “suspect”. Each video depicted a woman withdrawing money from a banking machine with the “suspect” standing behind her. Once the woman withdrew her money, the “suspect” grabbed the cash from her hands and ran away. While standing behind the woman, the “suspect” was presented in a profile position. The “suspect” then took the money, faced the camera briefly, and ran outside the view of the camera. After the students watch the videos they were separated into groups. One of the groups was of Anglo population and the second group was of mixed ethnicities. Both of the groups after viewing the video where asked to answer the question, Can they identify who the offender was from a lineup? The results where as predicted, when the students that where of Anglo population viewed the tape where the” suspect” was African American and then ask them to identify him in a lineup they were only 46% correct when identifying the correct “suspect”. When the second group was asked to identify the “suspect” from the lineup and they were from the same race the results where 60% correct when identifying the correct “suspect”.

When you get a new hair cut and you are not sure if you really like how the hair cut looks on you, you ask for people's feedback. If they give you positive feedback you feel more confident about the hair cut and if they give you negative feedback your confidence level declines. It is a simple scenario the one that I described above, but that exact scenario can take place when identifying a “suspect” in a lineup. Feedback from an officer or attorney plays a major role in the confidence of eyewitness testimony (Weber, Nathan; Brewer, Neil, 2008). For example, imagine that you are a victim of a crime and you are going to a line up identification. While you are identifying a “suspect” in the lineup, and you make your selection of who you think is the correct “suspect” the lawyer or officer tells you “Good job”. With the simple remark your confidence level has increased. At the moment you might not notice it, but if you have self awareness you will. (Weber, Nathan; Brewer, Neil, 2008) Looked at the external manipulation to eyewitness testimony, which in this case would be the positive feedback and the influence it has on your confidence in their research. They had two groups, the first group with N=103 participants and the second group with N=114 participants. Both groups where shown a video of staged crimes scenes. After viewing the tape they were taken into a lineup and ask to identify the “suspect” from the video. The group with N=103 volunteers were given positive feedback and the other group was not. After they had made their decision the researchers asked them the question, how confident are you that you chose the correct “Suspect”? The group that was given the positive feedback rated their confidence higher than the group that did not receive feedback (Weber, Nathan; Brewer, Neil, 2008).

After they were given the results the group that received the positive feedback was asked, did the positive feedback make you feel more confident about your selection, and they said yes. Most of the participants had not noticed that it had played a major role in their decision and how it impacted their confidence.

One of the ways that we can stop from positive or negative feedback interfering with eyewitness testimony is to have the eyewitness be self aware of the variables that may be affecting their confidence and accuracy . (Charman, Steve; Wells, Gary, 2008) Conducted a research where they gathered 100 students from the State University of Iowa and they let them watch a video of a crime, and then where asked to identify the “suspect” from a picture lineup, after they had made their selection they were given positive feedback from an officer. The students were gathered together and were briefed down on what they were being tested on. They were asked if they were self aware that the feedback from the officer had influenced their decision. 75% of the students of the students said that they were not self aware that they had been influenced by the feedback. By psychologist teaching the eyewitness to be self aware of the variables that are influencing their decision they can eliminate the variables and make a more accurate identification (Charman, Steve; Wells, Gary, 2008). This may sound easy to do but there are other variables that might take place. If the witnesses are being taught of how to be self aware, they might take it to an extreme and think that there is variables that are affecting their decision when in reality there is no variable, or they can think that there is no variable when in reality there is a variable (Charman, Steve; Wells, Gary, 2008).

Priming plays a major role in eyewitness testimony. Priming is when you are shown a picture of a person that gives you hints of what will be the next picture you will see. How is priming use in eyewitness testimony? For example, say that they are showing you a lineup in pictures and then they take you to a lineup with real people. Because you where shown a lineup of pictures and you saw “suspects” that have similar characteristics it does give you a hint on what to look for in the lineup with the actual “suspects” (Jenkins, Felicity; Davies, Graham, 1985).

You have just witnessed a crime, and you are the only eyewitness. The police officers take your statement right after the crime, a month passes by and you are contacted by the officers that interviewed you and informed you that the “suspect” has been caught and they need to retake your statement. How accurate would your statement be? Will the second statement be different than from your first statement? Peoples statements do change when they are interview right after the crime and then when they are interviewed a couple of weeks or months later. (M. Robinson;J. Johnson; F. Herndon, 1996). The reason why there is a difference is because when the witness is interviewed after the crime he or she is still in shock and is not able to reconciliation the event that has happened. After a couple of weeks or months because the memories of the event have been reconsolidated they are able to make a statement and include important details that have not been included in the first statement.

(M. Robinson;J. Johnson; F. Herndon, 1996) Investigated reaction time and confidence as predictors of memory for the details of a crime. They gathered undergraduates N= 111 as volunteers and they asked them to answer either recognition or recall questions. Reaction time and subjective assessments of cognitive effort were both negatively related to confidence and accuracy. Subjective assessments, however, were superior predictors of confidence, where as reaction time was a unique predictor of accuracy. The reaction time-confidence and reaction time-accuracy correlations were stronger under recall conditions than under recognition conditions. Multiple regression results suggested a possible explanation for the superior insight of recall participants into memory accuracy. Despite the allure of common sense, however, research indicates that eyewitness confidence does not reliably predict identification accuracy either between subjects (Kassin, .Castillo, & Rigby, 1991)

Once again we touch the subject of accuracy, confidence and the time it takes to recall the events that have happened. This can affect eyewitness testimony because what if the witness is better in recalling than in recognizing. People are different in the way they recognize and recall events especially through perception.

As the research on how to better eyewitness testimony continues, we have seen the development of having a double blinded study. A single blinded study is when only one person knows who the “suspect” is and that person would be the person that is administrating the lineup such as the officer or attorney. A double blinded study is when the person that is the eyewitness as well as the person that is administrating the lineup does not know who the “suspect” is. By conducting a double blinded study you are limiting the administrated from giving hints to the eyewitness or victim of the crime of who the suspect is (G. Wells; E. Olson, 2002). Lineup administrators could inadvertently communicate their knowledge about which lineup member is the suspect and which members are merely fillers to the eyewitness through various verbal and nonverbal means (G. Wells; E. Olson, 2002).

This statement above is what brings us to our next variable that affects eyewitness testimony, which I had no knowledge that it existed. When a lineup is being conducted there is times where the “suspect” is included in the lineup and then there is lineups where the “suspect” is not present in the lineup. When the suspect is not included in the lineup the eyewitness or the victim are not notified that the “suspect” is not present. So how does this affect eyewitness testimony? It affects it because of the reliability it would have in court. For example, if the eyewitness or victim goes to a lineup and identifies a person in the lineup as the person that was the offender and it turns out to be that in reality the “suspect' was not in the lineup the credibility of the person in court will suffer a major downfall (G. Wells; E. Olson, 2002).

In spite of the successful application of the eyewitness identification literature, significant work has yet to be done. The eyewitness identification literature has been driven much less by theoretical frameworks than by practical perspectives, two problems are related to this state of affairs (G. Wells; E. Olson, 2002). The first problem that arises is that the premium on application and forensic relevance reduces the communication and sharing of ideas between eyewitness identification researchers and their counterparts in basic areas of psychology, especially in the field of cognitive and social psychology (G. Wells; E. Olson, 2002).

The second problem that arises is that eyewitness research in a laboratory can never include all the different variables that are in the real world. For example a laboratory experiment cannot include the grass, the wind, rain, fog, and breeze. In the real world scenario it can affect how the person is feeling emotionally and also if the person is capable of seeing the “suspect”.

When I started my research my question was, how reliable is eyewitness testimony? We read about the different variables that affect eyewitness testimony and how they can influence your accuracy and your confidence. What I did not realize is that I was actually asking the wrong question. As I continued to research and read the articles I was realizing that the question that I was asking was a layperson's question when they had no knowledge on the research of eyewitness testimony (Gary L. Wells; John W. Turtle, 1993).

If there are so many variables that affect eyewitness testimony there is no way that we are able to exclude them from all scenarios, and the only way that we might be able to exclude them would be in a laboratory setting but then it will not be a strong research that would hold up in court because it does eliminate variables that are in the real world. I finally realized that we can try to improve eyewitness testimony and not ask, how reliable is eyewitness testimony, and the variables that affect it? The question that we should be asking is, under what conditions is eyewitness testimony reliable and when is it unreliable? (Gary L. Wells; John W. Turtle, 1993).