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Eyewitness Testimony Essay

The criminal justice systems in Australia and throughout the world rely on evidence to prosecute persons suspected of a crime. Previously, criminal investigators relied upon eyewitness accounts for their investigations though psychological research shows that eyewitness testimony is not always accurate and should not be used in the criminal justice system as a sole piece of evidence (Sangero & Halpert, 2007). Numerous research papers and articles have cautioned the use of eyewitness testimony due to many cases solely basing their verdict from this evidence. In light of DNA evidence, many convicted of a criminal offence have been exonerated of their sentences. The use of identification tests found in numerous papers clarifies why witness testimony can be inaccurate and unreliable. Experiments made throughout the years testing eyewitness accounts delve into factors associating event characteristics, eyewitness characteristics and target characteristics and how they contribute to the retrieval of information from an eyewitness.

These factors clarify as to why witness testimony should not be used solely as evidence in the criminal justice system but rather another constituent in identifying the person of interest in a criminal investigation. In 1992 a non for profit organisation was formed to help those convicted and sentenced to a crime they did not commit. The Innocence Project was formed by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld in affiliation with Cardozo school of law at Yeshiva University to help exonerate those found guilty via DNA testing (Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, 1997). According to The Innocence Project, 75% of eyewitness testimony which were used to convict suspected criminals in the United States of America was erroneous in light of DNA testing. In one such case in New Zealand, a man named David Dougherty was found guilty of rape and abduction of a little girl who pleaded against him in the court of law as being the man that raped her (Cleave & Gower, 2012).

Mr Dougherty was acquitted of the 1992 rape in 1997 due to the fact that experts finally concluded that there was insufficient DNA evidence to prove beyond a doubt that he was the perpetrator (Fairfax NZ News, 2009). Although DNA evidence exonerated Mr Dougherty of the crime, many believed he was the perpetrator due to the eyewitness testimony, and expert opinions were clouded due to the publicity of this case. It was only until an overseas expert testified in favour of Mr Dougherty that he was acquitted (Fairfax NZ News, 2009). This case shows the errors made by the victim/eyewitness and how certain she was of the suspect and The Innocence Project has proven that eyewitness testimony is often mistaken. It has been widely documented throughout the decades that mistaken identifications were involved in the majority of cases examined by psychological researchers (Penrod, 2005).

Research has suggested that during a police investigation, eyewitnesses would sometimes be subject to view more than one line-up to help identify a suspect (Palmer, Brewer, & Weber, 2010). Early research has cited that more viewings of potential suspects should theoretically improve the accuracy of the eyewitness choosing the offender (Penrod, 2005). Most recent research has found that multiple line-ups can impair subsequent identification accuracy therefore concluding that the more line-ups an eyewitness goes through, the more room for error in choosing the subject in question (Palmer, Brewer, & Weber, 2010). This study focused on post-identification feedback and separated their study into two main areas: confirming feedback and disconfirming feedback to see whether these would affect how the eyewitness will proceed with subsequent line-ups. According to Palmer, Brewer and Weber,

Only witnesses who received feedback after an initial correct rejection performed at a level comparable with a single-lineup control group, suggesting that an initial identification test can impair, but not enhance, performance on a second test involving the same culprit (Palmer, Brewer, & Weber, 2010).

It is suggested within this research that criminal investigations avoid using multiple line-ups to ensure that more innocent persons of interest are not convicted due to erroneous eyewitness accuracy. In Addition to this research it has also been found that eyewitness errors increase when persons of interest are chosen out of a photo display rather than an actual lineup (Lindsay & Wells, Improving Eyewitness Identifications From Lineups: Simultaneous Versus Sequential Lineup Presentation, 1985). These errors are believed to have something to do with the person administrating the lineups or photo arrays (Wells, Rydell, & Seelau, 1993) therefore manipulating the eyewitness’ choices in identifying a suspect within a lineup and subsequent lineups (Phillips, McAuliff, Kovera, & Cutler, 1999) as previously found. This error is resolved easily by appointing someone to administer lineups or photo arrays that do not know who the suspect may be (Wells & Bradfeild, 1998).

Furthermore, research has found that the longer the time interval between the event and eyewitness account, the likely it is that the eyewitness account will be erroneous (Loftus, Miller, & Burns, 1978). Another factor relating to event characteristics is that of distance. Many studies have shown that distance between the eyewitness and the target (suspect) will have an impact on memory recollection and facial recognition (Lindsay, Semmler, Weber, Brewer, & Lindsay, 2008). In one such experiment, it was concluded that eyewitness recognition deteriorated as the distance between them and the target increased (Wagenaar & van der Schrier, 1996). In most eyewitness testimony, it is up to the eyewitness to recall the distance between them and the target. Previously, the courts relied upon the 15 metre rule: the optimal viewing distance for an eyewitness (Wagenaar & van der Schrier, 1996).

Lindsay et al. (2008) suggested to the courts that rather than relying on the 15 metre rule, in general, identifications will decrease with an increase in distance hence it is up to the courts to decide whether the eyewitness accounts are credible or not. Eyewitness characteristics also factor in to the discussion of how reliable eyewitness testimony is in the criminal justice system. According to a research study by Wells & Olsen (2003), gender has very little to do with how well females perform to males in terms of eyewitness identification, although both genders differ in how they view the event/scene. The age of a witness has a major impact on eyewitness identification as children and the elderly were found to perform poorly in relation to young adults when experiments were conducted (Wells & Olson, 2003). Another factor included into the eyewitness characteristics is that of race. It has been thoroughly investigated and concluded that people are better at identifying facial features of their own race than those of other races (Meissner & Brigham, 2001).

This data is useful for those areas in which are culturally the same but for multicultural locations, namely Australia; it would have little significance the testimony could not be verified unless there was other incriminating evidence against the suspect. One suppressor of facial recognition is that of a weapon. A weapon is believed to reduce the ability of an eyewitness to correctly identify a suspect due to the attention been drawn from the perpetrators face towards the weapon/object (Steblay, 1992). In the court of law, this aspect of whether the eyewitness paid much attention to facial features to be able to correctly identify a suspect becomes somewhat of an issue. Eyewitness testimony is “self-report” and cannot be checked or cross referenced with other facts as it is purely psychological and based on how well the eyewitness believes they have retained sufficient facial recognition (Wells & Quinlivan, 2009). The confidence and certainty of an eyewitness has been frequently admissible in the criminal courts and the criminal justice system has previously relied upon the eyewitness assessing his/her own psychological capabilities.

This has been thoroughly researches as being certainty verse accuracy (Wells & Quinlivan, 2009). In the majority of the research conducted testing this, it has been found that the eyewitness certainty has a moderate relationship with accuracy (Penrod, 2005) therefore the criminal justice system cannot prove whether the eyewitness testimony is mistaken or correct. Finally there is the factor of target characteristics. As previously stated, facial recognition is more accurate when of the same race. Another factor though is that of distinctiveness and whether the target (suspect) has a recognizable face. It has been research that very attractive or very unattractive targets are easier to recognize than average looking faces (Wells & Olson, 2003). Changes in facial characteristics also play a role in whether an eyewitness can recall what they saw. Changes in the face that are of natural occurrence, such as hairstyle, and disguises can dramatically affect recognition(Wells & Olson, 2003).

In terms of whether these types of eyewitness accounts are to be used in the criminal justice system is simple as a suspect should not be convicted solely on eyewitness testimony but be used as a resource with other evidence which may incriminate the person of interest (Sangero & Halpert, 2007). Psychological research shows that eyewitness testimony is not always accurate; therefore it should not be used in the criminal justice system solely as a piece of evidence. To be able to convict and sentence a suspect, in the interest of the courts other evidence must substantiate such claims of guilt. Factors such as event characteristics, eyewitness characteristics and target characteristics explained in this paper show that eyewitness testimony cannot be used as reliable evidence. The studies in this paper clearly show that if there is a reasonable doubt in eyewitness testimony then it should not be used as a basis to convict a person of a crime but rather used as a constituent for further investigations of a suspect.

List of References

Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. (1997). The Innocence Project. Retrieved July 14, 2012, from http://www.innocenceproject.org/about/ Cleave, L., & Gower, P. (2012). 10 Years of Guilt over for rape victim. (N. Herald, Editor) Retrieved July 14, 2012, from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=3504996 Fairfax NZ News. (2009, March 07). Falsely imprisoned: David Dougherty’s story. Retrieved July 14, 2012, from http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/features/1387410/Falsely-imprisoned-David-Doughertys-story Lindsay, R., & Wells, G. L. (1985). Improving Eyewitness Identifications From Lineups: Simultaneous Versus Sequential Lineup Presentation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 70(3), 556-564. Lindsay, R., Semmler, C., Weber, N., Brewer, N., & Lindsay, M. R. (2008). How Variations in Distance Affect Eyewitness Reports and Identification Accuracy. Law and Human Behaviour, 32, 526-535. Loftus, E. F., Miller, D. C., & Burns, H. J. (1978). Semantic Integration of Verbal Information Into Visual Memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 4, 19-31. Meissner, C., & Brigham, J. C. (2001). Thirty years of investigating the own-race bias in memory for faces: meta-analytic review. Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 7(1), 3-35. Palmer, M. A., Brewer, N., & Weber, N. (2010). Postidentification Feedback Affects Subsequent Eyewitness Identification Performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16(4), 387-398. Penrod, S. (2005). Eyewitness. In L. E. Sullivan, M. R.

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