Eyewitness Testimony: A Review of The Literature

by Carrie Dickens

Statistics

"The gravest of errors that can occur in our system of justice" (Rattner, 1988)

Historical Examples

Purpose

To explore the research that exists regarding eyewitness testimony and to assess it on the basis of internal and external validity.

The Setup

Research Paradigm

Reliability

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

Credibility

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

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.

Estimator Variables

System Variables

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                                                                                                                                            positive correlation

Juror Influence

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


Discussion

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 are:

Reason #1:

Current eyewitness research trends do not accurately reflect real-life criminal events.

Reason #2:

Current eyewitness research, with the exceptions of Gudjonsson (1989) and Fisher et al. (1987) do not provide solutions to existing problems.

Reason #3:

The conclusions of eyewitness research are derived from a limited population sample.

Reason #4:

In most respects, eyewitness research fails to yield consistent findings.

Suggestions for Future Research

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