In the 1900s, psychology evolved to encompass a discipline that would help to understand criminal behaviors. This focus arose from the belief that once the behaviors are well-understood, effective strategies and approaches can be developed to address them. Law enforcement agencies have the responsibility of identifying criminal elements in the society by gathering evidence sufficient to convince the jury without any doubt that an offender actually committed the alleged crime. Reaching this conclusion requires the positive identification of persons who committed a certain crime.
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Considering that law enforcement agencies are in most situations absent at the time of committing the crime, they must rely on people who witness the crime to positively identify and provide bystander evidence in a court of law. However, this approach introduces challenges since eyewitnesses may wrongly identify people who they believe (or they are convinced) committed a crime against them or another party. This situation creates the possibility of wrongful convictions. In this case, forensic psychology becomes important. This paper does not offer histological accounts of forensic psychology and its application to studies such as crime prevention. Rather, it dwells on the deployment of forensic psychology in authenticating eyewitness’ evidence with a particular focus on its precision and effectiveness in court.
Literature Review: The Deployment of Forensic Psychology in Authenticating Eyewitness Statements
The inability of human memory to accurately recount events in their chronological order of occurrence constituted one of the dominant themes in early psychological studies. Using various experimental approaches, scholars, including Herman Ebbinghaus, began discovering various fundamental properties that characterized the functioning of human memory. According to Sporer, Penrod, Read, and Cutler (1995), one of the models that emerged from early studies on memory functioning theorized it a component that operates in the three stages. The first stage entails the acquisition phase where memories are established or formed. The retention stage is regarded as a memory holding point. Lastly, people retrieve the information stored in their memory. Arguably, when giving eyewitness’ testimonies, the degree to which one can acquire, retain, and retrieve information in his or her memory just as it was initially obtained determines the accuracy level of the evidence.
Despite the fact that theories concerning memory have extended beyond the basic model, they are still crucial in the debate on eyewitness memory. Indeed, research on eyewitness testimony as admitted in a court of law focuses on the acquisition or the incident of observation, the time that elapses after observation (retention), and the presentation of testimonies (retrieval) (Jones, 2014). In such studies, researchers consider various issues, including social variables such as the interrogator’s state of mind, and various situations, for instance, the nature of the crime. According to Loftus and Zanni (1975), variables such as the type of questions administered and individual variables, including the age of a witness, determine the reliability of witness testimonies. Therefore, such variables constitute important aspects that have been widely researched in forensic psychology. Indeed, various general problems that have been reported in the validation of eyewitness testimonies are evident, owing to the challenges associated with the acquisition, retention, and retrieval of observations made in a crime scene.
General Problems with Eyewitness Testimony
An extensive body of forensic psychology research focuses on the effects of different crimes on the ability of eyewitnesses to observe crime experiences accurately. For example, Wise, Sartori, Magnussen, and Safer (2014) inform that controlled research that involves showing people different videotaped crimes, which bear varying degrees of violence contends that violence impairs the capacity to acquire accurate information. However, field studies oppose this conclusion by noting that the exposure to highly violent crimes leads to accurate testimonies. For instance, according to Williamson, Weber, and Robertson (2013), victims of violent rape accurately recount their personal experiences. Scholars explain why these contradictions occur. For example, Hoscheidt, LaBar, Ryan, Jacobs, and Nadel (2014) reckon that groups, which endure stress, demonstrate a better memory relative to test subjects who had not experienced stress in their scenarios.
Theory indicates that people’s attention tends to narrow on central experiences and details of a criminal event or action (Vallas, 2011). This situation leads to blurred peripheral details, which negatively affect the reliability of memories in giving true accounts of a criminal act. For instance, this problem may lead to a witness failing to give correct accounts of the color of the shirt or the trouser that a suspected criminal wore when committing the claimed crime. This situation may occur when the central focus of an individual was on the weapon used to commit the crime, especially where such a tool was life threatening. Hence, in the acquisition phase, the focus on weapon leads to the presentation of information that may result in poor or inaccurate eyewitness testimonies during retrieval in a court of law or during the interrogation process.
After acquiring criminal information, an eyewitness interacts with various other stimuli, which may affect the quality of the accounts given concerning the crime in the interrogation phase. For example, Barnett (2016) asserts that a spectator may discuss a crime with other witnesses to the extent of modifying the information acquired. Media platforms may also give different accounts of a crime that was observed by an eyewitness. These two situations may lead to an eyewitness providing accounts of crime based on the acquired and distorted secondary information. Indeed, memory loss occurs with time. This situation underlines the necessity to consider the time interval when the crime occurs and the duration it takes before retrieval is done.
In a study on memory blindness, Cochran, Greenspan, Bogart, and Loftus (2016) investigate the effect of manipulating original self-memory reports on the long-term memory of events. The study points to the possibility of people being misled, especially concerning their own choices. The study takes an experimental approach. It involves exposing participants to slideshows that depict crime scenes. They are expected to narrate their recollections of periodic particulars of the proceedings or spot an assumed victim from a group of people (Cochran et al., 2016). The research reveals that participants’ memories may be distorted to the extent that one cannot detect any misinformation. This finding raises the question of whether explanations given by people concerning the source, choice, and reasoning of their memories depend on the existing inferences acquired from the available evidence or simply the true originals. In fact, this question influences the reliability and accuracy of eyewitness testimonies.
The style of conducting interviews coupled with the use of strategies such as photos or identity parades influences the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies. Indeed, as Cochran et al. (2016) assert, research on the effect of principal questions reveals that slight alterations in the structure of a sentence can interfere with the quality of evidence. Providing additional information to eyewitnesses affects the information retrieval process. Mu, Chung, and Reed (2017) support this assertion by noting that introducing misleading information has a great impact on peripheral details compared to central events. Hence, eyewitnesses may provide incorrect replies to various questions during the interrogation process, despite their memory traces having not been distorted.
Any information variation may lead to the alteration of witness accounts of the original events. This claim may explain the possibility of wrongful convictions arising from the reliance on firsthand eyewitness memory reports, a situation that raises concern considering the findings by Innocence Project, an advocacy group fighting for the rights of persons wrongly convicted in the U.S. According to the findings, 272 people in the United States had been exonerated (Norris, Bonventre, Redlich, & Acker, 2011). Consequently, it is important to consider validating eyewitness testimonies through forensic psychology processes before the acknowledgments can be admitted in a court of law.
Forensic psychology can help in unveiling the potential possibility of getting different versions of memory reports from similar eyewitnesses, a situation that has raised the alarm concerning the validity of the provided crime accounts. Research confirms the existence of discrepancies in eyewitness testimonies relative to the original reports. For example, McLaughlin and Somerville (2013) not only confirm this claim but also add that eyewitnesses are less likely to suffer from memory distortions. Cochran et al. (2016) suggest the need to reconsider self-memory reports since studies on choice blindness raises the alarm concerning the reliability of self-memory reports provided through eyewitness testimonies. The researchers insist, “An observer may develop false memories for an event by being exposed to a fabricated version of his memory report” (Cochran et al., 2016, p. 724). By so doing, the phenomenon of choice blindness may be integrated into the concept of misinformation, which impairs the ability of eyewitnesses to retrieve criminal accounts as they were observed and retained.
Accuracy and Usefulness of Eyewitness Testimony
Forensic psychology has a wide area of focus. However, cognitive psychology is important in the process of establishing the accuracy and reliability of eyewitness testimonies. Indeed, cognitive psychology helps to inform interview techniques deployed by police in questioning witnesses or the alleged offenders. Amid the problems associated with the reliability of eyewitness testimonies, courts still value adults who appear in courts to identify suspects.
Tribunals demand the availability of satisfactory facts to help in making exultant rulings. Judges in many countries rely extensively on statements made by victims to discover the perpetrators of a particular crime. Regrettably, although verbal testimonies provided by the affected individuals may offer an accurate illustration of the damages experienced, they may result in the prosecution of the mistaken people (Balko, 2013). Hence, eyewitness testimonies may force judges to conclude on condemning individuals for an offense they did not commit. Concurring with this argument, Sagana, Sauerland, and Merckelbach (2014) posit that judges are contented when they deal with individuals who can demonstrate the courage of pointing at an accused person and assertively declare him or her the perpetrator of the crime under scrutiny.
In some situations, eyewitness testimonies convince the jurors to the extent that they outweigh any tabled evidence for no wrongdoing. Indeed, Sagana et al. (2014) assert that courts in the U.S. extensively rely on eyewitnesses in making convictions and hence their reluctance to embrace evidence from forensic psychology studies on the likelihood of memory failure compromising the accuracy of an eyewitness testimony. Eyewitness interviewers may contribute deliberately or unintentionally to an erroneous identification. Sagana et al. (2014) agree with this assertion by presenting a 2004 case where a New Jersey-based supreme court confirmed that an eyewitness admitted he was nudged by an interrogator to identify a suspect.
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Hence, the information provided by eyewitnesses to detectives may convince an interrogator that a suspect committed a crime. Based on lineup procedures, the eyewitness may end identifying the wrong person due to memory failures and/or interactions that occur on the acquired information during the crime observation stage (Mu et al., 2017). In other words, forensic psychology is crucial in helping to understand the likelihood of eyewitnesses having distorted memories that impair the accuracy of the evidence provided.
Judges have conventionally deployed eyewitness statements in making conclusions concerning convicting or liberating the accused parties. Nevertheless, questions have been raised concerning the credibility and reliability of the data gathered, especially considering the wrong identifications made based on the accounts presented. A significant illustration of these issues involves the case of informant statements. According to Acker (2013), some wrongful convictions emanate from inaccurate testimonies submitted by law enforcement informants who deliberately give false details to satisfy their personal interests. Unfortunately, such spies are compensated without an appraisal of the precision and consistency of the facts they provide (Mu et al., 2017). To demonstrate the role of bystander testimonies in making unjust prosecutions, Acker (2013) discusses the case of Jeffrey Cox, a dweller of Virginia, who was condemned for a rape offense that he did not perpetrate.
Considering the substantiation presented in the legal chambers, the judge was persuaded that Jeffrey Cox engaged in the misdemeanor. This conclusion was made following statements provided by two onlookers. Nevertheless, the chambers and the defense side could not provide facts confirming that the accused had imminent crime charges. As a result, Acker (2013) quotes an adjudicator of the centralized appellate who dissented to the conventional strategy of relying on observers’ statements, particularly those involving spy witnesses. The adjudicator says, “The government relies too heavily on witnesses who are ‘rewarded criminals’, compromising both the accuracy and the legitimacy of the criminal justice system” (Acker, 2013, p. 1647). According to Balko (2013), the steadfastness of witness information in influencing judges’ rulings becomes more difficult upon considering the role of misguided eyewitness detection in contributing to unjust judgments. This situation suggests the need to reconsider methodologies of improving the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies.
Enhancing the Precision of Eyewitness Statements
Controlling the Time of Witness Identification
A high percentage of wrongful convictions emanate from erroneous eyewitness testimonies. Norris et al. (2011) reveal how mistaken identifications have led to unfair rulings. The authors rely on data from a study carried out by Gross and others who noted erroneous identification in 219 out of 340 cases of unlawful convictions during the period between 1989 and 2003. In the case, approximately 80% of 250 DA amnesty cases followed erroneous identifications. Mistaken identification was also associated with roughly a half the number of death penalty ruling judgments (Norris et al., 2011). What lessons can one draw from forensic psychology to help in resolving the situation?
An Australian-based forensic psychologist, Dr. Neil Brewer, studied the effect of police lineup on the possibility of erroneous identification and hence inaccurate eyewitness testimonies. The psychologist noted that allowing eyewitnesses as much time as they needed to scrutinize individuals in a lineup gave room for contradictions between the information acquired after the criminal experiences and the actual data as observed or experienced during a crime. Indeed, the psychologist noted, “strong traces in memory are easier to access compared to weak and mistaken ones” (Sagana et al., 2014, p. 259). This observation suggests the need to reduce the amount of time required to identify a suspect, a move that is meant to allow strong traces of memory to take precedence. In fact, Dr. Neil Brewer confirmed that more deliberations are problematic when it comes to human memory.
Using Eyewitness Testimonies in Conjunction with Forensic Evidence
The more one attempts to trigger an individual’s memory, the more unreliable such eyewitness testimonies become. During observer interviews, witnesses are repeatedly requested to recall their experiences in the crime scene in multidirectional ways (Taslitz, 2013). For example, an interrogator may ask an eyewitness to take his or her mind in the day and the state of crime and then remember everything that happened from the end towards the beginning. Apart from the highlighted memory flaws or lost cues, owing to the time that elapses between the crime observation stage and the exposure phase, the nature of questions during the interrogation process affect the accuracy of testimonies (Loftus & Zanni, 1975). Nevertheless, amid the problem with eyewitness testimonies, it is inappropriate to distrust completely or fail to rely on them when arriving at a verdict in a court of law. Rather, it is necessary to supplement the facts with more reliable approaches such as forensic evidence.
In crimes that leave behind DNA evidence, forensic science can play a central role in ascertaining the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies (Fulero, 2008). Acker (2013) supports this method of improving the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies. According to him, DNA testing mainly entails an irrefutable strategy for a winning judgment in minimal scandalous cases (Acker, 2013). However, this approach presents several challenges. Some crimes do not leave behind DNA prints. Indeed, DNA testing is primarily vital in offenses that lead to DNA exchanges such as assassination and sexual assault cases. In most cases, it is principally steadfast where assassination precedes sexual harassment, a case where adequate DNA contents can be accessed for examination. Nonetheless, this position does not mean that DNA should constantly be maintained even in these two classes of offenses. It is also not accurate in all situations when used to reveal the identity of wrongdoers. Hence, the main solution rests in structuring eyewitness interviews in a manner that compensates for the weaknesses of human memory in the acquisition, retention, and retrieval of the accounts of a crime.
One of the central concerns of forensic psychologists entails predicting brutality and assessing risk factors that may result in violence. According to Fulero (2008), forensic psychology merges psychology and law. Through forensic psychology, one can understand and examine memory cues that may translate into poor eyewitness testimonies. The process of examining and observing witnesses does not provide any direct way of determining whether the person is lying or giving inconsistent testimonies of the crime scene experiences. Nevertheless, studies on forensic psychology raise questions on the reliability of the provided testimonies akin to innate weaknesses of human memory in acquiring, retaining, and retrieving information (Wise et al., 2014). Amid the existence of forensic psychology evidence on the ability of human memory to recount truly the crime events, the legal system still relies heavily on eyewitness testimonies.
Eyewitnesses positively identify a criminal and/or give testimonies of how the person committed the offense. When the jury retires, it comes with an implicating judgment. Does such a verdict lead to the punishment of the true offender? Certainly, this outcome does not happen in all situations. Although an eyewitness may have acquired the correct information, testimonies may be given regarding a wrongly identified person. As argued in the literature review, when a weapon used in a crime is life-threatening, one is likely to focus more on the weapon. This situation leads to scanty information concerning the offender’s details. However, police identification procedures such as the use of photos and the identification parades only feature people or their snapshots. Thus, chances exist that an eyewitness chooses a person who he or she thinks is most likely to be convicted of the crime (Taslitz, 2013). Thus, when the jury relies on eyewitness testimonies, the risk of convicting wrong people are high, especially considering that some individuals admit having committed a crime of which they are not even aware. In mitigating such possibilities, evidence from forensic psychology can help to prescribe recommendations on how to improve the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies used in courts of law.
Eyewitness testimonies remain important ways of delivering evidence to help in prosecuting violent crimes. However, owing to the accuracy and reliability issues highlighted in the paper, successful and correct conviction calls for the need to consider strategies for enhancing their precision. According to Jones (2014), forensic psychology research suggests that subjecting eyewitness to contradicting and misleading information impairs the ability to retrieve the correct information. Therefore, during the interrogation process, detectives should focus on questioning witnesses about only the relevant information relating to the crime. Human memory deteriorates with time. Therefore, interviewers should make timely interrogations to the victims of violent crimes.
These recommendations not only ensure that victims provide evidence before they lose memory of the various crime events but also reduce the amount of additional information relating to the crime. Such extra information may be acquired from other sources such as people’s interactions with other witnesses or through media. Hence, witnesses can only give accounts of crimes based on what they actually experienced. Indeed, as Acker (2013) asserts, time is of great essence in improving the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies. In other words, the more the time an eyewitness is given to observe images or the actual persons who are likely to have committed the crime, the more likely a wrongful identification will occur.
Crime constitutes an everyday experience around the globe. Indeed, media platforms often highlight incidents of crimes that have both local and international significance. People break into other individuals’ houses, cars, and even fraudulently acquire credit card details with the objective of committing financial crimes. Other crimes such as terrorism have international significance. In the mid-20th century, forensic psychology emerged as a distinct area of expertise, which involves the application of psychological theories in human memory in a court of law. In addition to being applied in crime prevention, forensic psychology is also embraced in studies that involve antisocial behaviors and different offenses. In courts of law, witnesses who give first verbal accounts of a crime suffer various weaknesses such as memory loss. Such drawbacks raise questions about the reliability and sufficiency of their evidence to convince the jury to convict a suspect. Forensic psychology provides the tool for assessing the precision and accuracy of the provided eyewitness testimonies in courts of law.
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