- Published: November 7, 2012
Eyewitness testimony had been a crucial part of not just the United States, but every country’s justice system for centuries. Because people so adamantly believe in what they saw and the recollection of what they saw, there is also an implicit trust in others’ ability to accurately recall an event. Unfortunately, our senses are not a perfect copy of reality. As our knowledge of neuroscience and psychology improved, we realized that many factors can influence the accuracy of our memory, from input to storage to retrieval.
Our vision input can be altered by lighting, disguises, and even perception so that from the very first moment, our memory is already an inaccurate representation of reality. As the input gets transmitted into the brain, it is stored as a short term memory and then reconsolidated into long term memory by the hippocampus. During this process, a phenomenon called false memory syndrome can happen in which a person might later recall a detail that does not exist in the actual event.
During actual witness lineup identification, more complication arises. Dr. Gary Wells and Elizabeth Olson’s research discovered that young children, the elderly, and people with low intelligence have a high rate of mistaken identification during the lineup. In addition, even individuals who don’t belong in these extreme groups will have a higher chance of making a mistake if the culprits’ faces are nondistinctive, neither attractive nor unattractive, or if they are wearing some disguises. Moreover, during the identification, if the witness is giving confirmative feedback, it will result in a “certainty inflation effect [that] is greater for eyewitnesses who make mistaken identification than it is for those who make accurate identifications”.
Though eyewitness testimony is still a valuable asset to the criminal justice system, giving the unreliable nature of these testimonies, the justice system will need to utilize new neuroscience and psychology research findings to conduct reforms in this area. Major changes are already made in many states, including New Jerseys, which “has now done away with the lineup, and instead presents people one after the other” to prevent the witness from making relative judgment by comparing people from the lineup with the culprit from their memory. As the crime, and thus the punishment, becomes more severe, the court will need to take more careful measures to ensure an accurate and unbiased eyewitness testimony.
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