Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Problems with Eyewitness Identification and Testimony

Witnesses to a crime can make or break a case in our criminal justice system. They can lead to a life sentence of someone who committed a terrible crime, or let the innocent go free. When it comes to eyewitnesses of a crime, it unfortunately is not this black and white. While people who are eyewitnesses may fully believe that they are helping in the case, they could in fact be assisting in placing an innocent person in jail. While we all may think that we have the best memory and that we would definitely be able to pinpoint the person we saw committing a crime, our brain will most likely let us down, as demonstrated in the video below.

In the United States, “Bad eyewitness identifications contributed to 75 percent of wrongful convictions in cases that were overturned by DNA evidence” (3). This is an extremely large number of cases that could have ended in the proper way had false eyewitness identification not been included. These eyewitness errors can be due to a number of things, including distance from the incident, bad lighting, or simply that the occurrence happened too quickly (3). Witnesses to a crime may also be too focused on a weapon, have high anxiety or stress, or may have reconstructed the memory (2). Whether we choose to believe it or not, humans store memories and images in a way that makes most sense to them and it is not always exactly what happened (2). This can largely affect a person who is trying to determine who committed a crime based on what they think they witnessed. “Memory is affected by retelling, and we rarely tell a story in a neutral fashion. By tailoring our stories to our listeners, our bias distorts the very formation of memory—even without the introduction of misinformation by a third party” (1). Think back to a memory that has affected your life in the last week and try to tell it to someone without exaggerating anything and giving as much detail as possible. It is a lot more difficult that you may think.
Not only can you yourself change your memory, but other people can tamper with it as well. “Courts, lawyers and police officers are now aware of the ability of third parties to introduce false memories to witnesses” (1). With leading questions and other people telling you what they think they saw happen or what they believe happened, it is impossible for a completely accurate memory to remain in tact. Someone may believe that the person they witness had a black hair, while another believes that had blonde. As a result, a person may mix that together and determine that they now believe the person had brown hair in their memory. A simple discussion about the incident can completely change a memory.
Many people may also have selective attention, which is only concentrating on a specific thing and not realizing something else as a result. For example, if you witness someone stealing a purse, you may have been concentrating on his or her hair color or what he or she was wearing more then what his or her face looked like. This can alter the decision that someone makes when trying to identify a person because they weren’t actually concentrating on the their face. The video below demonstrates how easy it is to have selective attention without even realizing it.

While eyewitness identification can be extremely helpful in many cases, it cannot always be relied on. The human brain is incapable of precisely storing a memory, especially under a high-pressure situation. Eyewitness testimony and identification will probably always exist in the United States, it is just a matter of always having the evidence to back up what the eyewitnesses say that they saw. It is amazing to think how much can go unnoticed on a day to day basis due to our brain’s inability to remember every detail and its ability to change what we have seen.



  1. I agree that this is an area that is not black and white, but what area in criminal justice is?? I agree that while eyewitness testimony can be helpful to a case, it can also be hurtful to a case or an innocent individual who is being tried for that case. For one thing, there are so many problems with human memory, and every person remembers an event differently than the other person. In addition, especially with a crime, there are so many other things going on and other factors that can affect the memory of an individual that could place an innocent person in prison. In that first video you showed, I think it is so sad that those men were all convicted of crimes that when they were actually innocent. This just proves how big of an issue this can be.

    Also, I didn't even know the color change of the cups in the second video! I was watching it thinking I was going to be ready for whatever they threw at me and I was fooled!

  2. I can understand why it is so hard for eyewitnesses to be able to accurately pick someone out of a line up. When there is a crime being committed there are many things going through someone’s head expressly when worrying about their safety. With so much going on it can be hard to remember what exactly some looks like. Also the time span from when the crime was committed and when the witness has to identify them are far apart which can add to their memory loss. Even watching the cup video tripped me up. I was so focused on the card that I didn't even see the cup color change and that was in the matter of seconds. Witnesses are supposed to be able to identify a person weeks or even months later.

  3. This was a really interesting blog to read, and the supplemental videos were very eye opening! They definitely helped further explain the point of misidentifying certain people! Whenever I think of this, I always think of the motivation of race as well, especially from the time frame. I know there will never be statistics to show convictions from a race motivation, but in my brain, i connect the two! I guess it doesnt really matter because the race of everyone in the lineup would be the same, but i think it helps push for a guilty and stiffer punishment for the minorities unfortunately. I also did not think about, but agree completely with, the point you made about how after badgering by all sorts of people, it can lead to distortion! Great blog maleigha!