There has been a huge controversy over the reliability of eyewitness testimony. The question is not simply whether eyewitness testimonies are reliable or unreliable. The question lies in what factors are affecting eyewitness accounts, and how can we improve them to make them more effective.
Eyewitness accounts have a powerful effect on the jury as well as the judge. In the State v. Cotton case, empirical evidence was discounted for in the jury’s eyes. Cotton was wrongfully convicted due to the persuasive speech from Jennifer Thompson. Although eyewitness accounts are now discredited, they tend to provide in-depth descriptions that evidence could not explain alone. Eyewitness accounts are ineffective due to our memory.
Many people believe that our memory works like a video or tape recorder. However, this is not the case. Memory is often compared to a jigsaw puzzle. When memory is encoded, it breaks apart into tiny little pieces. When memory is retrieved, the tiny little pieces come back together to form a memory. However, sometimes, some of those pieces are lost, leaving “holes” in our memory. When this happens, our mind subconsciously fills in the gaps of our memory based on a variety of things, such as past experiences. Memory can be one of the causes of faulty eyewitness testimony, but it is not all of it.
Some of the effects of eyewitness testimony include: weapon focus, leading questions, cross racial effect, age, and relative judgment.
Weapon focus refers to the concentration on a weapon during a crime. If a weapon is present during a crime and visible to the witness, it reduces the chances for reliable eyewitness testimonies. In the Loftus, Loftus, Messo (1987), there were two groups of participants. Each group was shown a series of pictures of a fast food restaurant. The first group (weapon-present group) was shown pictures of a customer pointing a gun at the cashier. The second group (weapon-absent group) was shown a picture of the customer handing...