Eyewitness Memory

Eyewitnesses are frequently used in courts of law to provide evidence in criminal cases. However, numerous recent psychological studies that have questioned the quality of the evidence presented may have a long-lasting impact on the way this type of evidence is used in the courtroom.

In a sample of 2,000 witness parades, 45 percent of offenders were identified by an eyewitness. Of those, a staggering 82 percent were then convicted. In another group of 350 cases where eyewitness testimonies were the only form of evidence presented, 74 percent were found guilty on the basis of evidence that can hardly be described as objective.

One of the first cases that started to cast doubt on the validity eyewitness testimonies was the Loftus case in 1979, in which an assistant store manager was robbed by two men he only caught a glimpse of before they pulled stockings over their faces. He identified one man as white and the other as Hispanic, and said that one of the men had unsuccessfully applied for a job at the store. He also testified that their car was a 1965 Dodge Dart. Three days later, police stopped a 1965 white Plymouth Valiant and arrested both the driver and passenger on charges of robbing the store, although neither man looked like the suspects depicted in the composite sketch.

During the trial the assistant manager positively identified both defendants as the men who tried to rob him, even though there were multiple witnesses who gave them a credible alibi. As they left the courtroom, the accused cried out: "Momma, Daddy, appeal this. We didn't do it!"

The parents of the accused hired a private detective who eventually identified the real culprit. He was already in prison for another crime, and he had indeed applied for a job at the store as the manager had claimed. After spending two years of a 28- to 32-year sentence, the wrongfully convicted defendants were pardoned. This high-profile case planted seeds of doubt in the public's mind vis-à-vis the veracity of eyewitness testimony.

As long ago as 1895, the psychologist J.M. Cattell investigated whether his students could observe and accurately recall everyday events. When questioning 56 students about the weather the previous week, only 7 could correctly recall that it had snowed. As Cattell pointed out, it seems that people "cannot state much better what the weather was a week ago than what it will be a week hence."

In 1979, American psychologists Nickerson and Adams conducted a study to see how accurately people can recall details of objects that they see or use daily. Nickerson and Adams asked subjects to describe exactly what was represented on the back of an American penny. On average, only three of the eight critical features of the coin where recalled and even then, the features were often misidentified.

When an eyewitness observes a crime, many factors can distort the actual memory, even though it would generally be thought that the mind could remember the incident better. Studies show that the memory of a violent incident, such as the shooting of a child, is a more vivid memory than a more mundane event. However, a weapon takes on a central part of the memory, to the exclusion of other key details, further casting doubt on the reliability of eyewitness testimony. In "no weapon" cases, subjects identified the correct photograph 49 percent of the time, but when a weapon was present only 33 percent were correct in their identification.

Overall, it has become clear that eyewitness testimony is not totally reliable. This is not to say, however, that such evidence should not be presented in a court of law. Problems arise when eyewitness testimony is used as the only evidence, as it can be too easily manipulated. Memories, like other human traits, are imperfect.

Eyewitness Memory: Selected full-text books and articles

Eyewitness Memory: Theoretical and Applied Perspectives
Charles P. Thompson; Douglas J. Herrmann; J. Don Read; Darryl Bruce; David G. Payne; Michael P. Toglia.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1998
Essentials of Human Memory
Alan D. Baddeley.
Psychology Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "Eyewitness Testimony"
Memory for Everyday and Emotional Events
Nancy L. Stein; Peter A. Ornstein; Barbara Tversky; Charles Brainerd.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Part IV "Psychological Issues in Eyewitness Testimony" and Part V "Developmental Perspectives on Eyewitness Testimony"
Psychology and Policing
Neil Brewer; Carlene Wilson.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Eyewitness Testimony and Identification Tests"
Expert Testimony on Eyewitness Identification: A New Pair of Glasses for the Jury
Handberg, Roger B.
American Criminal Law Review, Vol. 32, No. 4, Summer 1995
Human Memory: Paradigms and Paradoxes
Robert L. Greene.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Eight "The Eyewitness Testimony Paradigm"
Memory and Emotion
Daniel Reisberg; Paula Hertel.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "Emotion and Eyewitness Memory"
The Handbook of Emotion and Memory: Research and Theory
Sven-©ke Christianson.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "A Model of the Diverse Effects of Emotion on Eyewitness Memory" and Chap. 9 "Eyewitness Memory for Stressful Events: Methodological Quandaries and Ethical Dilemmas"
Children, Social Science, and the Law
Bette L. Bottoms; Margaret Bull Kovera; Bradley D. McAuliff.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 14 "Children's Eyewitness Memory: True Disclosures and False Reports"
Memory and Suggestibility in the Forensic Interview
Mitchell L. Eisen; Jodi A. Quas; Gail S. Goodman.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 " False Childhood Memories and Eyewitness Memory Errors"
Mechanisms of Everyday Cognition
James M. Puckett; Hayne W. Reese.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "Multiple Mechanisms Mediate Individual Differences in Eyewitness Accuracy and Suggestibility"
Intersections in Basic and Applied Memory Research
David G. Payne; Frederick G. Conrad.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Constraints on the Suggestibility of Eyewitness Testimony: A Fuzzy-Trace Theory Analysis"
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