Eyewitness Accounts

Farah Farhat

Before the implementation of forensic expertise eyewitnesses were used in order to draw conclusions to incidents. Eyewitness testimonies were heavily weighted and lead to many being wrongfully accused and circumstances skewed beyond proportion.

In 1901, William Stern collaborated with a criminologist on an interesting experiment that further showed the level of inaccuracy in eyewitness accounts. The researches staged a fake argument in a law class and asked students to recall what happened in writing and orally. The research found that students made 4 to 12 errors but as tension increased in the scenario emotions reduced the accuracy of recall. Based on his research, Stern made a variety of conclusions, including: suggestive questions could compromise the accuracy of eyewitness reports; there are major differences between adult and child witnesses; the events that occur between the original event and its recall can dramatically affect memory; and lineups aren’t helpful unless they’re matched for age and appearance. Stern became active in the psychology of testimony and established the first journal to explore the subject, called Contributions to the Psychology of Testimony, which was later replaced by the Journal of Applied Psychology (Tartakovsky, 2011).

In 1906 Hugo Munsterberg was asked by a defense attorney to review his convicted client’s investigation and trial records. The client, who Munsterberg believed to be mentally disabled, had confessed to murder but then recanted. Munsterberg was skeptical about how the confession was obtained, but unfortunately the judge refused to review the case and the man was hanged. The judge also was furious with Munsterberg for thinking that he had expertise in this case. This was one of the events that prompted Munsterberg to publish On the Witness Stand in 1908. In it, he explained that psychology was vital in the courtroom, how suggestion could create false memories and why eyewitness testimony was often unreliable (Tartakovsky, 2011). He realized that psychological research findings had the potential to inform the criminal justice system about the unrealiability of eyewitness accounts (James et al, 2010).

In 1974, Buckout conducted an eyewitness experiment, which concluded that 7 out of 52 witnesses made the correct identification. He concluded from his findings that memory is selective and not a copy process (James et al, 2010).

The video below was created by 60minutes in order to give insight as to how eyewitness testimonies can affect the lives of those wrongfully accused.  The video also displays how forensic evidence can help protect those wrongfully accused through eyewitness testimonies.

Media References (in order of appearance):

CBSNewsOnline. (2009, March 9). Eyewitness Testimony Part 1. November, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-SBTRLoPuo&feature=relmfu.

CBSNewsOnline. (2009, March 9). Eyewitness Testimony Part 2. November, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4V6aoYuDcg&feature=relmfu.

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