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
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
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’
(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
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)
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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