Eyewitness Testimony: A Review of The Literature
by Carrie Dickens
"The gravest of errors that can occur in our
system of justice" (Rattner,
- thousands of innocent people are wrongfully
convicted every year (Buckhout,
- 77,000 people per year are charged with
crimes on the basis of eyewitness evidence (Goldstein et al., 1989)
- in a study by Wells (1996) 90% of the
wrongful convictions studied resulted from mistaken eyewitness identifications
- in a study by Brandon & Davies (1973) 74% of
the wrongful convictions studied resulted from evidence provided by eyewitnesses
- Calvin C. Johnson: was charged with the
rape of a young woman and served 16 years in jail
- Ronnie Bullock: spent 60 years in prison
for the kidnap and rape of a young Illinois girl
- Edward Honaker: spent 10 years in a Virginia
prison for sexually assaulting a woman at gunpoint
- Kirk Bloodsworth: was placed on death row
for raping and strangling a 9 year old girl
To explore the research that exists regarding
eyewitness testimony and to assess it on the basis of internal and external
- the staging of a crime
- identify the perpetrator or give an account
- jury studies
The research on reliability focuses on the interrogative
suggestibility and subsequent memory integration of witnesses. The
suggestibility of a witness is a measurement of how susceptible a witness
is to biased questioning. Memory integration occurs when a highly suggestible
witness is introduced to leading post event information.
Research on Reliability
Whether or not a witness is credible is dependant
upon the witness' decision to be deceptive. Deception can take two
forms. A witness may intentionally lie about events he/she observed
or the witness could offer false information in an attempt to please the
interrogator. Credibility differes from reliability in that it assesses
the amount of deliberate deception whereas reliability assesses the consistency
of a witness' report.
Research on Credibility
Accuracy refers to the amount of correct information
presented by the witness. Most research in this area has focused on
the variables that affect or predict accuracy. In 1987, Cutler, Penrod
and Martens examined the roles of system and
estimator variables in eyewitness identifications.
They cite the originator of the terms estimator and system variables
as Wells (1978). Cutler
et al. (1987) report that Wells (1978) defined estimator variables as
those factors that are beyond the control of the the criminal justice system
and system variables as as those factors that are within the control of the
criminal justice sytem.
- gender (MacLeod & Shepherd, 1986;
Butts & Mixon, 1995)
- race (Brigham & Malpass, 1985;
Bothwell, Brigham & Malpass, 1989; Chance, Goldstein & McBride,
- age (Goodman & Reed, 1986;
Searcy et al., 2000;
Dekle, Beal, Elliot &
- weapon focus ( Loftus, Loftus & Messo,
1987; Tooley, Brigham, Maass
& Bothwell, 1987; Maass &
- emotional stress (Christianson, 1992; Yuille
& Tollestrup, 1992; Deffenbacher, 1983)
- lineup procedure (Steblay, 1997; Garrioch & Brimacombe,
- interview techniques (Yarmey, 1998; Wells & Bradfield, 1998)
- context reinstatement (Sanders, 1986; Gibling & Davies, 1988; Smith & Vela, 1982)
- The Cognitive Interview (Fisher et al., 1987; Geiselman
et al., 1985; Fisher, Gieselman
& Amador, 1989)
The Confidence- Accuracy Correlation
In 1980, Deffenbacher reported that
the American legal and judicial systems place a great amount of importance
on the confidence an eyewitness expresses as a predictor of accuracy. However,
he notes that early studies have differed on whether or not their results
reflect a correlation between confidence and accuracy.
little or no correlation
- Brown, Deffenbacher & Sturgill (1977)
- Clifford & Scott (1978)
& Murray (1984)
- Loftus, Miller & Burns (1978)
Penrod, Loftus & Winkler (1982)
The impact of eyewitness testimony is never more
apparent than in a courtroom. Research on juror influence focuses
on this impact. Specifically, this research examines characteristics
of the witness that affect juror decisions as well as the presence or absence
of a witness.
Research on Juror Influence
- effects of witness and defendant attractiveness
on jury verdicts (Catano, 1980)
- effects of witness expertise and confidence
on juror perceptions of credibility (Whitley & Greenberg, 1986)
- effects of degree of detail on perceived
guilt (Bell & Loftus, 1988)
- juror knowledge of the effects of different
variables on eyewitness memory (Cutler, Penrod & Stuve,
- juror reactions to child witnesses (Leippe & Romanczyk, 1991)
When evaluating the external validity of the research
presented in this review, it is apparent that a shift in focus is called
for. This is true for four reasons. Specifically these reasons
Current eyewitness research trends do not accurately
reflect real-life criminal events.
Current eyewitness research, with the exceptions
of Gudjonsson (1989) and Fisher et al. (1987) do not provide solutions to
The conclusions of eyewitness research are derived
from a limited population sample.
In most respects, eyewitness research fails to
yield consistent findings.
Suggestions for Future Research
- focus on ways to measure and assess individual
differences in eyewitness performance
- expand population sample to include more
- replicate previous studies
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