Eye Witness Testimonies
It has been opined that eye witness testimony is a legal term that seeks to establish the accounts given by people concerning an event that they witnessed for example, an individual may be called upon to give detailed description of an attempted robbery by highlighting information on the perpetrators and other details of the crime scene (Cutler and Kovera, 2010). It is because of the importance of this concept that many cognitive psychologists and human memory analysts have undertaken to conduct research to help understand the impacts of eyewitness testimony in psychology and also elaborate on how several psychological factors may affect the effectiveness of this concept. This paper will discuss the major issues that cognitive psychologists are aiming to address, perform literature review on the existing data including methods, perform analysis, suggest recommendation on how this concept is important in daily life and provide an elaborate conclusion.
Psychological factors affecting eye witness testimonies
Researchers have conducted extensive research on the field of cognitive psychology to ascertain the effectiveness of eyewitness testimonies in judicial processes, this has been attributed to the notion that current juries tend to pay more attention to testimonies provided by eyewitnesses as a means of finding reliable and concrete information. However, researchers have discovered that there are certain psychological factors that may affect the reliability of information provided by eye witness. This section will indulge in discussing the research and finding conducted on factors such as anxiety, reconstructive memory and weapon focus.
Psychologists have opined that anxiety is always associated with real life crimes of violence, it has been confirmed that stress-free performance relationship followed a function that was proposed by the Yerkes Dodson Curve. This means that for tasks with minimal complexity, performances increased with stress up to an optimal point that it would start to decline. For instance, a study alluded that individuals who watched films and movies associated with crime and violence remember a considerable 40 percent of the instances of violence.
Similarly, it is ascertained that witnessing a real crime is probably more traumatic than taking part in an experiment; memory accuracy may well be even more affected in real life during submissions of testimonies (Zapf et al, 2013). Studies have showed that individuals acting as witnesses in real life incidents have accurate memories of the anxious and stressful events involving weapons. For instance, a gun shooting event was witnessed outside a gun shop in Canada, a robber stole guns and money, but was gunshot six times and died (Lang, 2010).
Police interviewed the witnesses for the first time and later a section were re-examined after five months and it was discovered that recall was accurate and that two misleading questions had no impact. The study established that witnesses who experienced the highest levels of stress were actually closer to the event, and this may have aided with the precision of their reminiscence recall. This study conducted by Yuille and Cutshall illustrated two main points that there are cases of real-life reminiscence where memory for an anxious / stressful event is precise, even after sometime later, and that misleading questions need not have the same effect as has been found in laboratory studies.
The reconstructive memory theory by Bartlett is a vital tool to use in understanding the reliability of eyewitness testimony because of his suggestion that recall is subject to personal understanding, reliant on any learnt aspect, cultural norms and values, and the way we make sense of our world. It has been established that most researchers believe that memory of humans is comparable to a videotape, in that information is stored and can be retrieved later through play back (Lang, 2010).
It is also important to note that information will be retrieved in the exact way in which it was stored, though other scholars have disagreed and pointed out that memory does not operate in that way. It has been established that people always extract gist from the information stored in the memory, that is, individuals are known to store information in their memory in the way that makes sense for them. It this case, people store data that is able to fit in different representations or schemas, according to many scholars, this is a way of organizing information. In psychology schemas are the sections of knowledge that agree to regularly met people, things or circumstances (Lang, 2010).
It is worth pointing out that they enable individuals to make sense of what they encounter in order to allow prediction of what is going to happen next, these schemas are determined by the social and cultural orientations. Cognitive psychologists have proved that schemas are capable of misrepresenting unacquainted information in order to map them to the existing knowledge in the memory. When this happens then the result is that eye witness may provide wrong testimonies for the occurrence of events. To test this theory, Bartlett used various stories to subject the subjects to interpretation and construction, in his test he told a story and each of the participants was required to tell the same to one another.
He concluded by pronouncing that individuals try to fit what they remember and what they really know and understands, it prompts people to change memories often so that things can become more sensible. He noted that with the subjects repeating telling the stories, the passages became diminutive, mystifying thoughts were efficient or misplaced overall and facts changed to become more acquainted or predictable. For this examination, Bartlett settled to the fact that memory is not precise and is determined by the prevailing schema, or what individuals already know concerning the world.
This examination precisely indicates that memories of individuals can be assumed to be reliable records of events and individuals perform different re-collections of events that are shaped by the stereotypes, beliefs and expectations. As a matter of fact, reconstruction of memory can heavily affect the reliability of information provided by an eye witness because memory is an active process and can be changed to simply correspond to what is expected by individuals based on the knowledge and understanding of the community.
This is also a psychological factor that may affect the dependability of eye witness testimony, it this situation the eyewitness will focus his attention to a weapon while excluding the other particulars of the crime (Lang, 2010). In most cases, in crimes that involve the usage of weapons, the witness tends to give more details of the weapon used in the crime than the person holding or using the weapon. A study was conducted elaborating the assertion of presenting several slides of a customer in a restaurant; in one instance the customer was carrying a gun while in the other situation the same customer was holding a checkbook (Lang, 2010). In was discovered that the subjects of study who witnessed the individual carrying a gun focused more on the gun and were therefore less likely to recognize the client in an identity parade than those who had seen the checkbook version of the person.
There are several reasons why individuals tend to focus on the weapon in a crime and thus their testimonies tend to provide extensive details on the weapon, first, it is suggested that the attention given to the weapon is automatic and unintentional. Studies conducted have discovered that even if a subject is asked to disregard precise stimuli they are unable to thus provoking an automatic response. However, in other studies it has been established that focusing attention is based on command and can be directed to a specific object, an item in another position can also act as stimuli for concentration. According to a survey that was conducted in 2001 by eyewitness specialist, 87 percent of the witnesses were able to sufficiently provide reliable information that formed the basis of criminal judicial processes; they were not affected by the weapon focus assertion.
Empirical research on eyewitness factors
An empirical study was conducted by Richard and Martin that aimed to seek the beliefs and knowledge of judges on the viability of eyewitness testimonies. It is asserted that over 30 years, researchers have documented on many factors that may affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies, as pointed out earlier researchers have shown that the presence of a weapon can impair the ability of the eyewitness to accurately identify the criminal. It has also been discovered that the confidences of the witness may be influenced by post crime event experiences that are disparate to identification accuracy (Wise and Safer, 2003). They have also studied and developed new techniques that can be used to interview witnesses that have the potential of yielding complete crime reports and also the procedural changes that can be made in the judicial system dealing with criminals.
This study ventured in determining the knowledge repositories of judges concerning the factors and procedures that may affect the accuracy of testimonies provided by eyewitnesses. In this study the judges indicated what they trust that assessors know about eyewitness factors, and what legal safeguards they would allow lawyers to use to inform adjudicators about the effects of eyewitness influences on identification accuracy. Law specialists have opined that expert testimony is the only legal precaution that is operative in sensitizing judges to eyewitness factors (Wise et al, 2009). This empirical study was informed by the assertion that the reason why certain judges exclude expert testimonies is that such knowledge is within the precincts of their understanding and that eyewitness would provide a wider dimension of issues surrounding the crime.
The methodology of the investigation involved the preparation, circulation and completion of a 10-minute questionnaire to judges (Wise and Safer, 2003). To ensure a wider reach to the judges, they were informed that they could complete the survey on a linked website, print a copy and then email it. In the process the researchers received 143 completed questionnaires on the website and 17 paper completed surveys totaling to 160. “The respondents comprised of 142 state judges, 10 federal judges, 7 retired judges, and 1 Indian tribal judge” (Wise and Safer, 2003). “The respondents who were used in the study had practiced law for an average of 13.96 years and had been on the bench for an average of 12.48 years” (Wise and Safer, 2003). The questionnaire covered many key subjects about eyewitness testaments and the juries were asked to specify their agreement or disagreement with 14 accounts about eyewitness influences and procedures, and to provide individual contextual information that was abridged in the previous paragraph.
The study found out that it was important to increase the knowledge of judges on the factors and procedures that may affect the accuracy of the accounts provided by eyewitnesses so as to reduce the frequencies of wrongful convictions. The study discovered that judges who had more knowledge were more aware of the dangers that could be posed upon relying only on eyewitness testimonies; they indicated that there is need to integrate legal safeguards and expert testimonies.
It was acknowledged from the study that expert testimony is operative in only some circumstances, it is also costly and time-consuming, and there are a limited number of experts. The study established that the solution to erroneous eyewitness identifications lies on educating the judges and other participants in the criminal justice system about eyewitness factors and procedures to minimize eyewitness errors, so that expert testimony would be less necessary in criminal cases (Wise and Safer, 2003).
It was established from the study that judges who have more knowledge can draft jury directions and conduct trials in such a manner that expert testimony would not be needed. The study suggested that current judicial educational materials on eyewitness materials have limited effectiveness, this is attributed to the fact that most judges lack the exposure and that some materials may be superficial. The study also advocated that another motive for the imperfect efficacy of legal edification is that the chief focus of the legal system is to discover witnesses who are dishonest and not those who make flawed identifications (Wise and Safer, 2003). For this study, it was recommended that eyewitnesses need to take oaths before giving accounts and that extensive education on eyewitness factors and procedures to increase the knowledge repositories of judges.
Current state of knowledge
Currently, cognitive psychologists do not believe that eyewitness testimonies are reliable, Gary Wells a social psychologist believes that eyewitness evidence should be used just the same way as trace evidence, and this is because of the various factor that may interfere with the accuracy of testimonies provided. He elaborates that eyewitness can be contaminated, lost, destroyed and can lead to the productions of results that can lead to poor reconstructions of crime and hence erroneous ruling. He gives an example of the testimony in a case that involved Olson and Fairbanks suspects, he suggests that investigators can employ a scientific model to collect, analyze and interpret eyewitness evidence (Toglia, 2007). He says that just like in a police lineup where hypotheses are used to provide instructions, collect results and interpret results, eyewitness testimonies can be biased when picking suspects out of a line up.
Other scholars have pronounced that eyewitness testimonies are never going to be totally detached from judicial systems of different countries as they play crucial roles and in most cases they act as the only source of information about an event that is accessible to the police and the judges. Psychologists have developed interests in finding out the most reliable form of testimony, whether written or spoken as it is acknowledged that a police can either request for a written testimony or an oral description of accounts leading to an event (Toglia, 2007). Cognitive psychologists current state of thinking has attested that spoken accounts are more accurate though they can display more false statements while writing down allows for self pacing and censoring over formerly produced information and thereby leading to fewer errors than speaking (Duke, 2007).
It is asserted that writing has the ability to be more efficient when there are several eyewitnesses because they can all give their record of accounts concurrently, subsequently reducing the rate of disremembering. It has been confirmed that to some extent, both writing and spoken eyewitness accounts appear to be suitable (Toglia, 2007). There is need for researchers to find a way which can facilitate the most precise eyewitness reminiscences so as to make judicial systems more trustworthy.
Recommendations for future research
Previous research has established that the accuracy of eyewitness testimony is influenced by several factors such as leading questions, delay in time and the memory of the witness. More research needs to be conducted in the area to find out ways that can make eyewitness testimonies more accurate and trustworthy to be used effectively in judicial processes. Future research should be conducted to find out how time delay may affect the accuracy of accounts provided by a witness as it is suggested that they may negatively affect the testimonies. Future research should also utilize similar methods used by researcher in the previous examination but should go further to focus on the role of gender in memory alike. In other words, research should be done to ascertain the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies given by the men and women on accounts of the same incident (Toglia et al, 2014).
It is recommended that in future research the investigators should examine the impacts of replacing simultaneous lineups with sequential ones, it is suggested that in so doing the researchers should allow the subject to look at all potential suspects at once and then later consider potential suspects one at a time. It is asserted that with concurrent lineups, eyewitness often engage in a comparative process instead of making an absolute sound decision and so sequential lineups would reduce the risk of wrongful identification.
Current researchers have proposed that in future research impacts and effects of asking for confidence statements should be investigated. This is because most eyewitnesses often grow more confident about their statements over time, irrespective of whether they’re actually correct. Lastly, future investigation should highlight on the benefits of giving judges better instructions, it is believed that juries should be instructed on how to evaluate the reliability of testimonies given by eyewitnesses. It is recommended that instructions could highlight different research verdicts depending on the circumstances of a particular case.
Relevance of the topic
Eyewitness testimony is very important in our everyday life as it can provide compelling legal testimonies as individuals can make errors in remembering specific details and can even remember whole events that did not actually happen thereby leading to unfair rulings and judgments by the juries (Toglia et al, 2014). It is an important area of research in cognitive psychology area because of the compelling nature it holds and it is hard for those hearing the testimonies to agree with certain statements. There is wealth of evidence, from research conducted over several years, portentous that eyewitness testimony is perhaps the most influential form of evidence offered in the court, but in most cases, its correctness is doubtful. Evidence has also been brought forward to imply that mistaken eyewitness evidence can lead to unlawful conviction thereby sending people to prison for a long time, even to death row, for crimes they did not commit in the actual scenario (Toglia et al, 2014). There is also optimism, though, that majority of the flaws may be preventable if appropriate provisions are engaged throughout the fact-finding and judicial progressions (Toglia et al, 2014).
It has been confirmed from research that eyewitness testimony is very influential and substantial to juries even though it is not chiefly consistent. It is paramount for psychologists to help in informing judges and investigators that errors can occur that has the potential of leading to people being falsely accused and even sentenced. On the same note, the memory of eyewitnesses may be corrupted through use of leading questions, misinterpretations of events and their own expectations for what should have happened (Toglia et al, 2014). Research has indulged more on proving that eyewitness testimonies can be affected by a series of factors and so future research should try to find out how such factors can be mitigated so as to ensure the reliability of accounts provided by eyewitnesses.
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