Validity of Eyewitness Accounts Behavioral, Psychological, and

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Validityof Eyewitness Accounts: Behavioral, Psychological, and EnvironmentalConsiderations

Eyewitnessis arguably the oldest and the most relied form of evidence in thehistory of criminal justice. In fact, eyewitness testimony is oftengiven the most credibility in the courtroom when compared toconfessions. However, in the recent years, there has been an increasein the number of researches questioning the credibility ofeyewitness. The reliability of human senses and the brain’s abilityto process and remember information has been one of the main areas ofconcern to many forensic psychologists. According to theseresearchers, human memory does not work like a video recorder – itdoes not retrieve images and their associated verbal and emotionalcharacteristics in their original states. Additionally, crime scenesare not as easy to explain as some witness accounts are influencedwith a myriad of factors both environmental, psychological, andsometimes behavioral affecting the account given by the witness.While eyewitness account is one of the most credited piece ofevidence, contemporary forensic psychology are increasingly wedgingwar on the admissibility of eye witness account.

Inquestioning the credibility of eyewitness accounts, most of therecent researches on eyewitness testimony examine the conditionsunder which human perception and memory fail and how the memoryprocess from encoding, storage, to retrieval and could corrupt whatappears on the surface to be a perfect account of the felony thattranspired. According to Bartol &amp Bartol (2011), contemporarypsychological science has demonstrated that human memory does notwork like a video recorder. That is, it does not retrieve images andtheir associated verbal and emotional characteristics in theiroriginal states. Instead, the process of retrieval often involves thereconstruction of events. The form that this reconstruction takes canbe influenced by any number of factors such as misleading post-eventinformation, which could be supplied in the form of questions in awitness interview, use of suspect line-up or mugshot searches andassociated police line-ups, and witness expectancies and stereotypesamong many others. Furthermore, psychological research hasdemonstrated that even the wording of a question can distort theresponse of an eyewitness. For instance, Morgan et al. (2011)discovered that the use of defined articles produced greateracquiescence from witness than using indefinite articles. In additionto the nature of memory, the accuracy of eyewitness account has beenshown to be influenced by nature and construction of line-ups in theidentification process. For example, Wixted &amp Mickes (2012)successfully demonstrated that instructions that implies that thesuspect is in the lineup lead to more affirmative responses on thepart of the witness. Furthermore, if witnesses are led to believethat they chose the correct suspect, their confidence in their choiceincreases, even when the person they chose was not actually the onewho committed the offense.

Onefactor that goes hand in hand with positive identification is thewitness’ expectation. According to Clark (2015), witnessexpectations influence his or her memory particularly on the abilityto recognize the crime’s perpetrator. It is a documented fact incontemporary researches that most of the witnesses and even thegeneral public hold stereotypes about criminal appearances. Aplethora of studies has demonstrated that such stereotypes influencean individual’s recall for a sequence of events. For example, astudy documented in Clark et al. (2013) simulating U.S trialsdemonstrated that individuals who appear to fit the witness’stereotype of a criminal have a higher probability of being convictedas the perpetrators of a crime as compared to individuals who do notfit these stereotype. However, even though the socio-psychologicalliterature is loaded with manifestations of how stereotypes and otheranticipations can influence the memory and ultimately the actualevent, very few direct studies have investigated how such informationinfluences recognition and accuracy. Wixted &amp Mickes (2012)examined identification accuracy for what they categorized as guiltyand innocent-looking perpetrators. From the study, they found nosubstantial disparity, incorrect recognition nor false recognitionrates for the two types of perpetrators. On the other hand, otherstudies have shown that witnesses often recognize faces that theythink are characteristically murderers more frequently than thosecharacteristics of witness to an alleged police murder.

Perhapsthe most eulogized environmental factor that affects the accuracy ofthe eyewitness account is the lighting of the crime scene. Commonlyknown as illumination, researchers argued that crime takes placearound the context of illumination. Thus, the amount of lightavailable in a crime scene is indisputably a relevant factor toconsider when assessing the reliability of witness accounts. Thefirst study to officially consider the relevance of lighting indetermining the accuracy of witness account was conducted by Lindsayin his 1994 survey cited in Wixted &amp Mickes (2012). In thissurvey, Lindsay considered illumination as the fifth most importantfactor that determines eyewitness identification accuracy.Furthermore, results from the survey confirmed that the lighting of acrime scene has a direct effect on the account given by a witnessabout a crime scene. Supporting these findings, Clark (2015)demonstrated that witnesses remember less about an incidence thattook place at twilight when compared to one that took place duringthe day or at night or during hours of darkness. A similar finding isreported by Morgan (2011) who argued that the only aspect that to asignificant scale influences the correctness of commercial robberyeyewitnesses’ description of the offenders was the lightingconditions. However, it has been observed that the fact that a crimetook place at night does not seem to discourage witnesses from havingconfidence in the accuracy of their testimony irrespective of thepoor lighting conditions. This observation is interesting consideringthe fact that the ability to adapt to the dark can take up to thirtyminutes depending on the intensity and duration of lighting conditionthat one was previously exposed to. The fact is eyewitnesses whoexperience a sudden change in lighting condition have trouble seeingwhat took place. Relying on such a witness to prosecute a crime hasbeen significantly brought into question. In such a circumstance,Clark (2015) reminds his readers that crimes very rarely take placeunder ideal lighting conditions where everything can be seen, or inclose proximity when the degree of sight is at prime, or last enoughto allow witnesses to capture every moment, nor are they free fromany other type of interference. As such, it is important to considerall the factors when assessing the authenticity of the eyewitness’saccount. Furthermore, there is a possibility that an eyewitness maybe fatigued at the time of crime thus affecting the recall accuracyof the crime scene.

Wagenaarand Van der Schrier 1994 conducted one of the most interestingresearches on the nature of illumination and its impact to witnessaccount (cited in Morgan, et al. 2011). In their study, Wagenaar &ampVan der Schrier varied illumination and distance at which witness sawa person they were subsequently asked to identify. It was concludedthat the identification of a person in a moderately bright lightingin the evening differs from the identification of an individualviewed in full moon at the same distance. In a more recent study, DeJong et al (2005) one of the most famous Dutch psychologist,established that there was a systemic increase in accuracy for facerecognition where there was improved illumination.

Eyewitnesstestimony plays an important role in the investigation of a crime,the decision to prosecute, and the trial of a suspect. In the lasttwo decades, there has been a significant surge questioning thereliability of an eyewitness account. An increasing number ofempirical studies have demonstrated that there is no simplestraightforward answer to the question of the reliability of thehuman memory as a source of reference. Consequently, it has beenequally demonstrated that both environmental factors and thewitness’s behavioral characteristics and psychological state affectthe quality of an eyewitness account. However, even with the highamount of research questioning the reliability of eyewitness account,very few researchers have been publicized documenting miscarriage ofjustice due to witness misidentification. Perhaps, this is due to thefact that most of the researches questioning the reliability ofwitness account are often controlled thus, forensic studies areadamant to extrapolate the findings from controlled studies toreal-life situations. Nevertheless, the literature reviewed confirmeda number of event characteristics that affect the accuracy of theinformation recalled by witnesses.


Bartol,C. R., &amp Bartol, A. M. (2011). Introduction to forensicpsychology: research and application. New York: Sage Publications.

Clark,S. E. et al. (2015). Eyewitness identification and the accuracy ofthe criminal justice system. Policy Insight from the Behavioral andBrain Science. 2(1). 175-186

Clark,S. E., Brower, G. L., Rosenthal, R., Micks, J. M., &amp Moreland, M.B. (2013). Lineup administrator influences on eyewitnessidentification and eyewitness confidence. Journal of Applied Researchin Memory and Cognition, 2, 158-165

Morgan,C. A. et al. (2011). Efficacy of Forensic Statement Analysis inDistinguishing Truthful from Deceptive Eyewitness Accounts of HighlyStressful Events. Journal of Forensic Sciences 56(5). 1227 – 1234.

Wixted,J.T &amp Mickes, L. (2012). The field of eyewitness memory shouldabandon probative value and embrace receiver operatingcharacteristics analysis . Perspective on Psychological Science.7(3). 275- 278.

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