Is the eyewitness memory to recall a crime infallible?

Table of contents:


1. Introduction
2. Eyewitness testimony and its weaknesses
3. The accuracy of eyewitness memory
4. Eyewitness stereotype
5. Conclusion

"The case in which you really need to worry about eyewitnesses’
memory is the case in which it’s the only evidence you‘ve got,"

Steven M. Smith

1. Introduction
Eyewitness memory has always been a subject of constant arguments throughout the whole history of its existence. People’s words have always been valued and having a witness of a crime was he worst thing hat could happen to the criminal. The phrase “Eyewitnesses do not live long” so commonly spread among people, reveals the importance of the fact of eye-witnessing for the majority of people in general and especially for the jury. The eyewitness memory as any other source of evidence has to be carefully checked and evaluated. And what is even more important – the objectivity of the recollections have to be very at a very high rate. Criminal justice requires special attention to the phenomenon of the eyewitness memory as it is known that sometimes memory plays tricks on its carriers. This is primarily due to the peculiarities of the perception of human mind and the character of the reproduction of the information.
I is common knowledge that memory is a process of perception, storage and reproduction of any information. So it is very important to be sure that all of these processes are undamaged. This emphasises the importance of the information about the eyewitness health and mental abilities. The eyewitness memory can be of any value only in case of its correspondence to the major court demands and its 100% objectivity which is especially hard due to the subjectivity of the human perception.
2. Eyewitness testimony and its weaknesses
Eyewitness testimony is an oral informing about the circumstances that are important to the criminal case. During the process of checking and evaluation of the eyewitness testimony the main difficulty is to determine if the eyewitness has certain reasons for concealing information or giving false testimony. The main weakness of the eyewitness testimony is the analysis of the process of its formation, taking into account all the subjective and objective factors, which could have influenced the accuracy, veracity and objective reliability.
There are four factors that question the trustworthiness of the eyewitness testimony. They are: the characteristics of human perception, the conditions under which the perception takes place, the specific character of the memorization and the memory peculiarities, and the character and he conditions under which the reproduction of the perceived information takes place. All these four conditions can without any doubt be called the weaknesses of the process of the eyewitness testimony.
The characteristics of human perception implies the physiological limitations of he persons, any defects of the perception organs and the orientation of the perception, susceptibility to different irritants, the psychological setting on perception of the person and he understanding of his own attitude towards the perceived facts. The conditions under which the perception takes place emphasize the importance of the psychological state of a person at the moment of perception, the duration and the atmosphere of the process of perception, the operation factors of the perceived object, physical conditions of the perception such as the specificity of illumination, distance, audibility and any others. The specific character of the memorization and the peculiarities of memory of the eyewitness create a separate group which is vital in the evaluation of the reliability of the eyewitness testimony. This is especially actual in terms of the novelty of the events for the eyewitness, their recurrence, the continuance of the storage of information, the particular qualities of the witness’s memory and its defects and a last the possibilities of distortion or substitution of the information. The character and the conditions under which the reproduction of the perceived information takes place intends to reveal the value of the interpretation of the setting, unwillingness to give reliable testimony according to personal motives or because of the dread of revenge from the side of defendant and the conformity of the given testimony and its record.
All these conditions under which the eyewitness testimony is “insolvent” make it very hard to trust the eyewitness testimony or rely only on it during the case investigation. For that reason no eyewitness testimony should be taken in into consideration if the witness depositions contradict other irrefutable evidence. Another questionable situation is the contradiction of the testimonies of two eyewitnesses which rather often happens in court. Basically saying eyewitness testimony remains too objective for the court and for that reason it can not be a subject of complete confidence until it is not supported by any objective details. The major problem is the contradiction and sometimes the discrepancy of the subjective and objective evidence. This puts the necessity of eyewitness testimony under a big question!
3. The accuracy of eyewitness memory
The biggest task of the evaluation of the eyewitness testimony is the selection of the correct information and the release from all the subjective “blast”.
According to Marc Green:”Memory can change the shape of a room. It can change the colour of a car. And memories can be distorted. They are just an interpretation. They are not a record” [1]. This is what makes the eyewitness memory primarily unreliable for the court. It goes without saying that there are both accurate and inaccurate eyewitnesses. Nevertheless, the probability of getting inaccurate eyewitness testimony may is still rather high and this is extremely dangerous due to the fact that the wrong person can be put in jail only because someone gave “inaccurate” information concerning the case. The jurisdiction system is not the place for might guesses and human beings can very seldom be objective towards what they have observed in the past. Individuals tend to add and to modify what they saw and they do it unconsciously. It happens due to the peculiar probabilities of the memory. The brain subconsciously “fills in the gaps” of memory and through this creates new case-details. These details ordinarily are not correct at all.
Actual perception and memory do not have much in common, as many facts a blurred, forgotten or replaced by other facts. Any reconstruction of a given even is often accompanied by slight changes in the testimony which can become indicators of the unreliability of the eyewitness’s event and fact memory. The accuracy of the eyewitness’s statements is not stable and subjectivism reduces the precision of the facts to zero. The brightest practical example is any childhood event that people usually like to reproduce. It is common knowledge that all of them are distorted sometimes completely. But what happens to the perception when a person finds himself in a situation of high stress when for instance becomes an eyewitness of a murder?
According to the studies of the Yale University:”…the ability to recognize persons encountered during highly threatening and a stressful event is poor in the majority of individuals…” [2]. So the only situation when the eyewitness testimony should be considered is when that even took place in a very familiar environment for he individual and did not cause any extreme stress condition.
The problem of accuracy of the eyewitness testimony is closely related to the inability to provide correct “peripheral details” and the tendency to provide changed details of the event. The majority of people have stereotyped thinking when certain events are connected to certain objects and other events. For instance, a person that has a settled opinion that all robbers have knives will claim that he saw a knife in the hands or in the pocket of the robber. Individuals confuse memory information sources and sometimes also combine two different events. Or they might have heard a story related o their case and impose this “borrowed memories” over the actual situation. So the accuracy is no any means a characteristic of the eyewitness testimony.


5. Eyewitness stereotype
Very often eyewitness testimony contradicts the real forensic evidence of the case. This contradiction creates a serious problem for the jury. Juries are people and are also subjective, and it is obvious that their personal.
The research in the field of eyewitness memory is of a great significance to the jurisdiction system. And that is very important not to underestimate the meaning of the temperament, physical properties and other moments when analyzing the eyewitness testimony.
Psychological questions concerning the eyewitness testimonies were the main priority of a French scientist Laplas. Laplas analyzes the probability of the eyewitness statements along with the probability of he outcome of court verdict.
He constructed a list of elements that may imply that the testimony complies with the reality. This list consists of the next elements:
? The probability of the event that the eyewitness is telling about.
? The likelihood of the next four hypotheses in terms of the eyewitness’s statements.
o The eyewitness is not mistaken and is not lying.
o The eyewitness is lying, but not mistaken.
o The eyewitness is not mistaken, but is lying.
o The eyewitness is both lying and mistaken.
In this hypotheses “mistaken” means that the eyewitness is confusing facts that of the described event.

Laplas perfectly understood the difficulty of evaluation of the veracity or falsity of the eyewitness testimonies through this method because of the large amount of circumstances, accompanying the facts that the eyewitness makes statements about. He considered his theory to be just a probability and not a certainty. That is the reason he also considered that the court does the same thing – it bases on the probability and not reliability. Nevertheless Laplas’s scheme is very interesting as a scientific attempt to evaluate the reliability of the eyewitness testimonies.
5. Conclusion
Human memory there fore is something very personal and comparative. It cannot be a base for any important decisions such as the court verdicts. The eyewitness puts all his believes, settings and attitudes to the testimony he makes.
It is vital to keep in mind that memory changes with time and every subsequent attempt to retell what has happened will be jus another subjective interpretation of the event. Eyewitnesses can support or refute general facts about the case, but never the details and their testimony should never be put above the actual evidence presented to the court. The only exception are the cases when eyewitness testimony is the only available evidence, but these cases should by analyzed on a very specific model, as they do not coincide with what people call “justice”. If to act like this it is possible to accuse any innocent person and put him behind the bars. How just is this? Should eyewitness testimony be taken into account at all? It goes without saying that the information got from the witnesses can be important, but only general information in the first place and its verity will be considered rather relative in the second.
The following words by Norretranders and Sydenham perfectly describe the whole situation around the eyewitness memory reliability:”We do not see what we sense. We see what we think we sense. Our consciousness is presented with an interpretation, not the raw data. Long after presentation, an unconscious information processing has discarded information, so that we see a simulation, a hypothesis, an interpretation; and we are not free to choose”[7].

Bibliography:
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Eyewtiness memory is unreliable
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Science daily. Eyewitness memory.

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6. Norretranders, Tor and Sydenham, J. (1999), The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down To Size, p186-87. New York: Penguin Books.


7. Cassel, W. S., Roebers, C. M. & Bjorklund, D. F. (1996). Developmental patterns of eyewitness responses to repeated and increasingly suggestive questions. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 61, 116-133

8. Loftus, E. and Doyle, J. (1992) Eyewitness Testimony: Civil and Criminal. The Michie Company: Charlottesville.

9. Wells, G., Small, M., Penrod, S., Malpass, R., Fulero, SD., and Brimacombe, C. (1998) Eyewitness Identification Procedures: Recommendations for Lineups and Photospreads. Law and Human Behavior, 22, 603-647.

10. http://www.visualexpert.com/Resources/mistakenid.html
Eyewitness identification procedures


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