OPEN COLLEGE A                                 



Adult Eyewitness Testimony

Anyone who witnesses a crime or something relevant to a criminal enquiry may be asked to testify about what they have seen or heard. In the U.S.A witnesses provide crucial evidence relevant to 75000 cases per year.

These witnesses frequently make mistakes and many innocent people have been put in jail due to inadequate testimony from eyewitnesses. On April 6, 1975, the police arrested Aaron Lewis for armed

robbery of a grocery store. A clerk said that the "man leaving was the same man

who robbed him at knifepoint on February 15,1975". Soon

after the clerk's call, the police picked up Lewis. Lewis admitted to

shoplifting the beer and wine that he had in his possession at the time of his

arrest. The clerk positively identified Lewis as the robber in a line-up, even

though the robbery had taken place seven weeks earlier . Was the clerk

correct in his identification of Lewis? Was time a factor affecting the clerk's memory?

Loftus (1979) suggests that the time lapse between the robbery and the

identification affected the clerk's memory. As time goes by, people forget

specific details.

Eyewitness Accuracy and Inaccuracy

Even the most honest, intelligent and well meaning witnesses to an event very often make mistakes.

Eyewitness testimony is a very controversial issue in the courts today. One

issue is whether or not it is valid. Another issue is what affects eyewitness

testimony has on the jury. Many researchers, such as Loftus  have

addressed these issues.  Loftus argues that the evidence given by witnesses in court cases is highly unreliable she believes that the way witnesses are cross-examined(asked questions) definitely influences how they remember events. Loftus studied the influence of cross-examination questioning in a laboratory experiment, Loftus and Zanni 1975) 100 students saw a film of a multiple car accident and were then asked to complete a 22 item questionnaire, six of the questions were CRITICAL

In one of the CRITICAL questions Half the subjects were asked the question ‘Did You See a broken headlight ?’ The other half of the students were asked the question ‘Did you see the broken headlight ?’ The difference being ‘the’ or ‘a’.

When asked about something that had not appeared in the film 15% in ‘the’ group said yes compared to 7% in ‘a’ group.

(See Box 1 – What Eyewitness experts say in court)


In 1979, Loftus did a study on what effects eyewitness testimony has on the jury

as opposed to no eyewitness testimony. She had university students read a one

page summary of a criminal trial. Considering this summary, the students were to

decide if the defendant was guilty or not. Loftus had the students read the

summary that had no eyewitness testimony. 18% of the students found the

defendant guilty. The students read a second summary that had eyewitness

testimony added. 72% found the defendant guilty. Then, the students read a third

summary where the eyewitness's testimony was discredited by the defense

attorney, but the witness reaffirmed his testimony. 68% found the defendant

guilty. This shows that eyewitness testimony weighs heavily on the jury and that

jurors tend to overbelieve eyewitness testimony .


Therefore it seems quite logical that Eye-Witness testimony can produce innaccuracies with original information(the event which people have witnessed) becoming distorted.


However there are arguments which offer support for Eye-Witness Testimony


Yuille and Cutshall(1986) found that in a real life situation witnesses provided much more accurate detail. (See Box 2)


Davies (1989) found that children as well as adults can give an accurate testimony.

(See Box 3)



In Conclusion


Loftus et al (1970) believe that people tend to make educated guesses when trying to identify alleged criminals in identity parades. This type of evidence led to the production of the Devlin report(1976) which recommends that a trial judge be required to instruct the jury that it is not safe to convict on a single Eye-Witness Testimony alone except in exceptional circumstances(e.g the witness is a close friend or relative) or when there is substantial corroborative evidence.  


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