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  • Briefly define (no more than a couple of sentences) what eyewitness testimony is and where is it used in the criminal justice system
  • Consider its accuracy and costs associated where errors occur
  • You need to outline and evaluate around 3 areas of research which have examined the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.
  • If you conclude that eyewitness testimony is not always accurate, are there ways in which the criminal justice system can adjust its processes to increase its accuracy and make it a more useful tool or should it not be used at all?
  • You must adopt a position and argue this position throughoute. in every paragraph. Possible positions might be that i) eyewitness testimony is accurate and should be used within the criminal justice system; OR ii) eyewitness testimony is not accurate and should not be used; OR iii) that eyewitness testimony is not always accurate but by adopting certain practices, it can still be a useful tool for the criminal justice system. You should develop this position after reading your empirical articles.
  • If you argue that processes can be used to increase accuracy and therefore this testimony should be used, combine in each paragraph the evidence on the error and processes to reduce that error – this will allow you to make your argument in every paragraph (that despite the inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony, it should still be used in the criminal justice system as the inaccuracies can be overcome)

Factors Affecting Eyewitness Testimony

Eyewitness testimony is a term used legally referring to the account that is usually given by the individuals that have witnessed a certain incidence. For instance, the individuals may describe an incidence of a road accident or a robbery at a trial and the process includes describing the crime scene details and identifying the perpetrators (Wells, 2006). Eyewitness testimony is a significant sector of research in human memory and cognitive psychology. In the system of criminal justice, eyewitness testimony has been a dependable information source for the juries.

Critically, eyewitness testimony is significant to the system of justice, it is of great necessity for the criminal trials to rebuild facts from events of the past, therefore, eyewitnesses are usually very important during this process (Douglass & Steblay, 2006). However, the Psychological scientists challenge the assumptions made by the public in general and the legal system concerning the precision of the eyewitness testimony accounts and incase of errors as a result of eyewitness testimony misunderstanding, cases such as mistaken identification might occur. For this reason, the supreme court outlined five factors to govern the trier evaluating the accuracy in the eyewitness testimony account and they are: The time difference between the identification and the crime; the opportunity of the eyewitness to observe the perpetrator during the misconduct; the eyewitness’s accuracy of the preceding depiction of the perpetrator; the certainty level established by the spectator during the identification; and the degree of the witness’s attention at the crime (Henkel & Coffman, 2004).

Eyewitness testimony account is not accurate always as it might result in some errors which cause losses therefore high cost is incurred. Errors might result in conviction of innocent individuals as the perpetrators stay unpunished, therefore the police lineups are required to follow the protocol carefully to avoid high costs and rates of incorrect identification. However, by adopting particular practices, it can still be of significance in the system of the criminal justice (Whitehouse, Orne & Dinges, 2008). The supreme court puts forward four issues which are: The appropriate time that the criminal has to be presented before the council for the eyewitness description procedure; the rule governing the acceptability of the unreasonably suggestive witness description procedure, the factors considered by the court when deciding whether to acknowledge the testimony accounted by an eyewitness; the proof burden that the prosecutor has to offer to ensure satisfactory of the council in acknowledging the eyewitness testimony (Whitehouse, Orne & Dinges, 2008).

Challenging the Accuracy of Eyewitness Testimony

Research on the other hand has discovered that the testimony of the witnesses can be influenced by various psychological factors such as reconstructive memory, stress/anxiety and weapon focus(Doyle, 2010). These factors however can be adjusted to ensure that there is no occurrence of eyewitness testimony error in the criminal justice system. This is because some of them such as in the case of real life violence anxiety/stress has proved to be of great significance as the witnesses tend to have an accurate memory of the event.

The reconstructive memory is essential in understanding the reliability of the testimony accounted by the eyewitness. It is suggested that recalling is subject to an individual’s interpretation depending on cultural or educational values and norms, and therefore making sense to the world. Mostly, it is believed that the memory works like a videotape, as it stores information by recording the information and remembering the recorded data.  This information can therefore be retrieved in the same way it was recorded. However, the human memory might fail to record exactly what is presented to them and for this reason, they tend to extract the information from the underlying meaning. People tend to store the information that is observed in a manner that makes it more convenient to them and they tend to make sense of the info by trying to fit the data into schemas as a way of organizing the information (Vedder & Klaming, 2010). On the other hand, the eyewitnesses can be manipulated by the offenders to report the exact opposite of what exactly transpired in order to favor their judgment before the jury. In most cases, such situations happen when the eyewitness is under siege, hence compelling the eyewitness to report wrong information before the court that might compromise the fight to justice. The pressure and psychological tougher forces the eyewitness not to appear before the court and give accounts of what happened on that fateful day.

The schemas are the mental knowledge units that relate to people, situations or objects that are frequently encountered. Schemas allows an individual to develop the sense of what is encountered in order to foresee what is to happen and what is to be done during various situations. The schemas might be biased as they are determined by various values such as the social value (Nadel & Hardt, 2011). Schemas therefore have the ability to distort unconsciously or unfamiliar information that is unacceptable so as to fit in the existing knowledge, this can lead to unreliable testimony of the eyewitness (Burke, 2006).

Implementing Practices for Evaluating Eyewitness Testimony

Remembrance is just an active procedure and subject to personal construction or interpretation, this is illustrated in a variety of studies: In the study of the “War of the Ghosts” it is shown that the memory not only records facts but also involves the process of making “effort after the meaning”, this means that people try to fit what they recall with what is known and understood by the world. This result in alteration of the memories so as to be more sensible to the individuals. In the story of “The War of the Ghosts” the participants heard it and told others and on asking the individuals about the story, each person had their own account about the story. McAdams, (2001), explains that repetitive telling of the story resulted in the shortening of the story together with omitting and rationalizing of the puzzling ideas for the purpose of making the story more conventional or familiar. This shows a clear indication that the memory are dependable photographic records of proceedings. They are personal recollections that have been constructed and shaped basing on the person’s beliefs, stereotypes and expectations.

Stress/ anxiety is mainly associated with the violence crimes in real life. Ball, (2009) illustrates that the performance of stress followed an inverted U functioning projected by the Yerkes Dodson Curve. 

This indicates that for the moderately complex tasks, the performance escalates with stress until the optimum is reached where performance then starts to decline. People that have seen a violence attack film remember fewer items and lesser data about the occurrence than another group of individuals who have watched a less stressful video. Therefore, observing of a crime that is real is even more stressful, and this might affect the accuracy of the memory as a result of anxiety or stress.

However, other studies challenge the significance of anxiety in affecting the memory of the eyewitness. Porter et al, (2001) illustrates that, spectators of a real life violence crime of gun firing outside a Canadian gun shop were extraordinarily accurate in remembering the occurrence of the incidence. The witnesses were interviewed by the police and they gave a clear account of what they saw and thirteen of the witnesses we re-interviewed after five months.  It was discovered that their remembrance was accurate even after a given period of time, the memory remained accurate even after the involvement of various misleading questions by the group that was conducting the research. The weakness of the research was, the eyewitnesses who had the highest anxiety levels where very close to the event and this might have been the reason to their memory accuracy. Porter et al, (2001) indicates two vital aspects which are; there are some real-life cases where the memory for a stressful/ anxious happening is accurate even after a long period of time, and questions that are misleading may not have the same effect on real life experiences as it has been discovered in studies conducted in laboratories.

The Importance of Accurate Evaluation of Eyewitness Testimony in Criminal Cases

Weapon focus is referred to as the concentration of the eyewitness on the weapon excluding the other vital details of the crime. Wells et al, (2000) suggests that, in crimes where weapons are involved, it is common for the eyewitness to give a more detailed description of the weapon that the individual that was holding the weapon. Studies to illustrate this involved showing a number of slides of a buyer in a cafeteria, in the first version the customer had a gun and in another version the same buyer had a checkbook. The participants who observed the gun slides focused on the gun more than the customer, this is because the mind is built to take precautionary measures and therefore it tends to quickly recognize danger. The participants who saw the checkbook slides were able to describe the customer in detail.

However, Porter et al, (2001) challenge the significance of weapon focus in affecting the memory of the eyewitness. In the real life case of gun shoots outside the Canadian gun shop the witnesses give a clear account of what happened even after a period of five months.

Eyewitness testimony has not been accurate always but through implementing various practices, it can be significant to the criminal justice system (Damaska, 2001). These practices involve the development of a method on how the prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges can assess the accuracy of the eyewitness in the criminal cases. It is important for the judiciary group to understand how to evaluate the accuracy of the testimony accounted by the witness (Levine & Tapp, 2002). This knowledge is of importance to the judiciary so as they can evaluate the probative eyewitness testimony’s value accurately in the illegal cases, therefore preventing incorrect convictions that might be from the mistaken eyewitness testimony accounts. Schmechel et al, (2006) suggests that, the judges at the trial require this technique when deciding if they should; acknowledge the testimony involving a pretrial eyewitness documentation, permit an in-court documentation by the witness, acknowledge the eyewitness proficient testimony, allow other legal defends to train assessors about the eyewitness proof, during the ruling on the evidentiary issues of the eyewitness and during the bench trial when evaluating the eyewitness testimony’s accuracy (Osterburg & Ward, 2013).

The appellate judges are required to understand the evaluation process of the accuracy of the testimony accounted by the eyewitness. The appellate judges then decide whether the court’s trial abused its preference by eliminating the expert testimony concerning the weaknesses of the testimony of the eyewitness (Lynch, 2014).  This knowledge is essential to the appellate judges in determining whether the testimony of the eyewitness in a given case is reliable sufficiently for the affirmation of the guilty judgement on appeal. The Prosecutors should assess the testimony of the eyewitness in a given case and should decide if it is sufficiently accurate to accuse the suspect and take the case to the trial (Wald, 2002).

Conclusion

Eyewitness testimony is significant to the system of justice, it is of great necessity for the criminal trials to rebuild facts from events of the past, and therefore, eyewitnesses are usually very important in the criminal justice system. However, the testimonies are not always accurate due to various psychological factors and this might result in some errors, for this reason various practices such as the evaluation of the accuracy of the eyewitness testimony by the judiciary group have been adopted. The adoption of the practices is to ensure the improvement of the eye witness testimony to ensure its usefulness in the criminal justice system. Therefore, this means that eyewitness account should not be used solely as a piece of evidence in incriminating a suspect in court, rather the accounts should act as a resource that would help gather more evidence on the suspect before getting them charged for an offense. In order to convict and sentence a person to prison, other substantial evidence must be provided to charge the suspect guilty of the crime committed otherwise they will remain innocent until more evidence is brought forth to substantiate the claims.

References

Ball, M. (2009). The effect of stress on memory: Eyewitness performance in juveniles and young adults (Doctoral dissertation, University of Cape Town).

Burke, A. (2006). Neutralizing cognitive bias: An invitation to prosecutors. NYUJL & Liberty, 2, 512.

Damaska, M. (2001). Presentation of evidence and fact finding precision. U. Pa. L. Rev., 123, 1083.

Douglass, A. B., & Steblay, N. (2006). Memory distortion in eyewitnesses: A meta?analysis of the post?identification feedback effect. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20(7), 859-869.

Doyle, J. M. (2010). Learning from error in American criminal justice. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 109-148.

Henkel, L. A., & Coffman, K. J. (2004). Memory distortions in coerced false confessions: A source monitoring framework analysis. Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 18(5), 567-588.

Levine, F. J., & Tapp, J. L. (2002). Psychology of criminal identification: The gap from Wade to Kirby. U. Pa. L. Rev., 121, 1079.

Lynch, G. E. (2014). Our administrative system of criminal justice. Fordham L. Rev., 83, 1673.

McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of general psychology, 5(2), 100.

Nadel, L., & Hardt, O. (2011). Update on memory systems and processes. Neuropsychopharmacology, 36(1), 251.

Osterburg, J. W., & Ward, R. H. (2013). Criminal investigation: A method for reconstructing the past. Routledge.

Porter, S., Birt, A. R., Yuille, J. C., & Hervé, H. F. (2001). Memory for murder: A psychological perspective on dissociative amnesia in legal contexts. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 24(1), 23-42.

Schmechel, R. S., O'Toole, T. P., Easterly, C., & Loftus, E. F. (2006). BEYOND THE KEN? TESTING JURORS'UNDERSTANDING OF EYEWITNESS RELIABILITY EVIDENCE. Jurimetrics, 177-214.

Vedder, A., & Klaming, L. (2010). Human enhancement for the common good—Using neurotechnologies to improve eyewitness memory. AJOB Neuroscience, 1(3), 22-33.

Wald, P. M. (2002). Dealing with witnesses in war crime trials: Lessons from the Yugoslav Tribunal. Yale Hum. Rts. & Dev. LJ, 5, 217.

Wells, G. L. (2006). Eyewitness identification: Systemic reforms. Wis. L. Rev., 615.

Wells, G. L., Malpass, R. S., Lindsay, R. C. L., Fisher, R. P., Turtle, J. W., & Fulero, S. M. (2000). From the lab to the police station: A successful application of eyewitness research. American Psychologist, 55(6), 581.

Whitehouse, W. G., Orne, E. C., & Dinges, D. F. (2008). EYEWITNESS MEMORY: Can Suggestion be Minimized in the Investigative Interview?. Forensic Examiner, 17(4), 65.

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