The Accuracy of an Eyewitness Testimony

The reliability if an eyewitness testimony is questionable. The witness may be so certain that the person that thy are pointing out is one hundred per cent the suspect or they could be so certain when it comes to retelling the incident, although these people are so sure on what it is they are doing, their testimony cannot always accurate.

Due to the lack of accuracy with eyewitness testimonies, they should not be used as the most reliable piece of evidence. The criminal justice system relies heavily on eyewitness identification for investigating and prosecuting crimes (Wells & Olson, 2003) because a testimony from an eyewitness is so strong within a case, you would expect the accuracy and reliability of that testimony to be very high.

When we look at criminal statistics, we know that most victims know who the offender is, therefore the risk of an innocent misidentification is minimal (Howitt, 2012) It is circumstances where the victim and victimizer are strangers that can cause risk of an innocent misidentification (Howitt, 2012) When discussing the accuracy of an eyewitness testimony one should look at the Cotton case. Ronald Cotton was sentenced to life imprisonment after he was found guilty for rape. The victim and eyewitness, Jennifer Thompson had picked Mr. Cottons picture out of a group of pictures and also identified him in a line up.

When the case went to court, when asked who attacked her the night of the incident, Thompson pointed to cotton. Because Jennifer had made such an effort to identify her attacker the night she was attacked, and had chosen Cotton in the lineup, his photo and in the courtroom, the jurors took this testimony as very reliable and accurate evidence. Thus finding Ronald Cotton guilty. After spending over ten years in prison a DNA sample proved the Ronald Cotton was in fact not the rapist and had been wrongfully imprisoned (Wise, Fisherman, Safer. 009). This definitely raises the question: how accurate is an eyewitness testimony? And should eyewitness testimonies as evidence be removed from the justice system? I personally believe that an eyewitness testimony is not always accurate, made clear by the case above, in saying that, I don’t believe that it should be taken out of the justice system completely. Eyewitness testimonies or evidence may still prove to be helpful within a case however, not be used as the most reliable evidence.

There are many factors that need to be considered when assessing the accuracy of ones eyewitness testimony those factors are: characteristics of the witness, characteristics of the witnessed event, characteristics of testimony, lineup content, lineup instructions, and methods of testing. (Wells & Olson. 2003) The major causes for wrongful eyewitness testimonies/identification, according to Wise, Fisherman and Safer are: * The nature of human memory: this claims that, although we like to believe it, our memories are not like a video camera.

When trying to recall an incident we may not be able to remember them exactly, details may be missing or disturbed. * Eyewitness Bias: “ an eyewitness’s expectations, atitudes, belief and knowledge not only influences what an eyewitness recalls about the crime, but also what the eyewitness perceives about the crime”. This means that the victim may focus a lot more on a specific thing about the culprit. For example, a hairdresser may pay more attention the culprits’ hair than anything else. Because of this, other information or characteristics about the case may be forgotten or incorrect. Misinformation effect: information the eyewitness learns after the crime can alter how they can reconstruct the crime. This information cannot only effect the recontruction of the crime, it can also impair the eyewitness’s ability to identify the person. * Hindsight Bias: Hindsight bias can affect the eyewitness in that, once the witness learns how the event turned out, it can affect how they remember the crime. * Overconfidence of the eyewitness testimony: although the witness may seem and feel confident, this does not mean that their testimony or identification is correct or true.

All of the above factors and causes for wrongful causes of eyewitness testimonies as well as factors such as: the lighting of the area where the incident happened, how long the victim was with the victimiser, how stressful the situation was and the amount of time between the crime and alerting authorities can have a huge impact on ones eyewitness testimony. Although the witness may seem adamant and confident in their testimony, the above factors should be assessed and taken into consideration when reflecting on the accuracy and reliability of the witness’s testimony.

An alternative source of reliable evidence is DNA evidence. Although DNA evidence did not exist when Ronald Cotton was first accused, it was what made him a free man in the end, proving his innocence. It is believed that thousands of men and women are wrongfully convicted for crimes they did not commit (Wise, Fisherman & Safer, 2009) and as experts estimate; half of all wrong convictions are due to misidentification in an eyewitness testimony (Wise, Fisherman & Safer, 2009). A study conducted in 2006 , proved that in seventy five precent or more of cases an error had occurred in 180 DNA exonerated cases. Wise, Fisherman & Safer, 2009). This study showed that along with the errors and wrongful imprisonment, a number of defendants had been wrongfully sent to death. Eyewitness testimonies count for the majority of wrongful convictions of both men and women. The Innocence Project is an organisation that help those who are wrongfully convicted be exonerated through DNA testing. When looking up cases on the Innocence Project website, I found most cases were due to an eyewitness identification, with most of these innocent people serving ten years plus in prison.

The Innocence Project found that out of 138 cases, two-thirds of the DNA exonerated cases were due to an eyewitness testimony (Howitt, 2012). Some of these cases are fairly old and may have begun when DNA testing was not possible, many women and men were sentenced to jail time for crimes they did not commit for long periods of times. If eyewitness evidence is going to continue to be used as evidence it should not be used as the most reliable source of evidence. DNA tests should be used and held as a more reliable ource of evidence, as a persons eyewitness identification can not always be held accountable or accurate. For a more effective result DNA and eyewitness evidence should be collaborated, to lower the rate of wrongful convictions of men and women.

To cut and lower the rates of wrongful convictions Judges and Jurors need to be better educated in the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies. “Many scholars argue that the best option is to allow an expert witness to testify to the factors that can affect an eyewitness’s ability to perceive and remember. – Boston Law College Review. As stated above, although the witness may seem so certain and adamant that what they are recalling is correct, due to the surrounding factors, they may not always be as correct as they believe. Knowledge on how to assess the accuracy and reliability of an eyewitness testimony is vital to judges and jurors as this will help to lower wrongful convictions and help to convict the rightful culprit (Wise, Fisherman & Safer, 2009).

Judges need to be able to asses an eyewitness testimony when it comes to: determining whether or not an eyewitness testimony should be admissible in court, allow and in court witness identification, admit eyewitness expert testimony and in ruling on eyewitness evidentiary issues (Wise, Fisherman & Safer, 2009). Along with judges, prosecutors must also have the skill to assess an eyewitness testimony in order to indict the suspect and take the case to trial. Many Jurors are still uneducated of the reliability of eyewitness testimony accuracy, even though it has known to be unreliable.

Jurors, Judges and prosecutors need to learn and understand the factors surrounding and relating to an eyewitness testimony. They must understand that in a stressful situation, a persons memory may not remember certain vital things about the incident and also understand that stressful situations can sometimes cause people to forget how the situation was actually acted out. The amount of time the victim spent with their victimiser can also greatly effect their eyewitness identification, if the suspect and were not together very long the image of that person may become distorted to the victim, therefore making an incorrect identification.

If the suspect was wearing a disguise can greatly effect how the victim recalls the incident and the suspect. Also the lighting and the location of the incident can be factors of misidentification and recalling of events. The need for jurors, judges and prosecutors to be educated in eyewitness testimonies is greatly needed. If they are better educated and skilled in the accuracy of an eyewitness testimony, the amount of wrongful convictions handed down to innocent people will be lowered greatly.

Eyewitness testimonies also play a key role in the investigation process of a case. “In the immediate aftermath of a crime, an erroneous identification can derail police investigations…” – The Innocence Project. A survey conducted on British police officers found that a majority the officers valued an eyewitness identification very positively in the investigation process (Howitt, 2012) The value of an eyewitness testimony is obviously very valued in the legal and justice system, although it has proven to be un reliable and inaccurate in many cases.

The amount of wrongful convictons that have been handed down to innocent people is alarming, with many eyewitnesses like Jennifer Thompson of the Ronald Cotton case, being so adamant that the suspect they have picked out of photo arrays, lineups and in court is their victimizer, and sadly just like the Ronald Cotton case many innocent people spend many years behind bars for a crime they did not commit.

With the alarming amount of wrongful imprisonments due to the validity that an eyewitness identification or testimony hold, the reliability and validity of eyewitness evidence within the justice system needs to be reviewed, eyewitness testimonies should not be used as the most efficient piece of evidence. The reliability of an eyewitness testimony is a concerning topic for experts.

The question of: should eyewitness testimonies be removed from the justice system has been brought up many times, due to the amount of wrongful convictions that have been given to many innocent people. Thankfully, DNA has exonerated those who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. With the many cases where an eyewitness testimony has wrongfully convicted a suspect, one would think that the use of eyewitness evidence as the most important piece of evidence would be removed.

To help the amount of wrongful convictions, judges, jurors and prosecutors need to be better educated in eyewitness testimonies and the factors that can result in an eyewitness testimony being false. Although I do not agree with the use of eyewitness evidence being used as the most important source of evidence, I don’t believe it should be removed from the criminal justice system, instead collaborate an eyewitnesses testimony with DNA samples.