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Criminal Profiling: Eyewitness Testimony is Reliable

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An article written by Christine Hauser mentioned a man who was wrongfully accused of aggravated robbery and got sent to prison for nearly 17 years of his life; this man is named Richard A. Jones. And all of this happened because of a falsified eyewitness testimony. The witness placed the robber at the scene who had the same physical appearance and was confident that the same man was indeed the robber. However, 17 years later, the witness was given a photograph of the two men and could not distinctly tell them apart. Thus, the real robber was then caught. Finally, he filed a petition and wanted to be compensated for at least $1.1 million.

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This is important to understand; because of unreliable eyewitness testimony, it sent a man like Richard to prison for a long period of time, leaving behind a wife and two kids of his own. This can significantly hurt you when you get in and out of prison. You lose the time you had with your loved ones, and you were never there for the rest of it while you are in prison serving time for something you did not do.

Therefore, the problem lies with the witness and the jury, since psychologists are not allowed to be an “expert”, their testimony on memory would not work because it would invade province to the jury. In most cases, eyewitness testimony is unreliable, so the question is; is eyewitness testimony reliable? No, eyewitness testimony is not reliable. This paper will address the following, the problem with eyewitness testimony in the legal system, evidence from cognitive psychology, and finding ways to fix unreliable eyewitness testimony.

There are many reasons why eyewitness testimony is a problem in the legal system. The one concerning reason is the accurate description of the person. The second reason is the memory of the witness. How accurate can it be? Under which circumstances can the witness point out the main details of the crime? The other main problem would be allowing an expert on eyewitness testimony, such as a psychologist, be allowed to take part in it.

Legal scholars and social scientists have mentioned that eyewitness testimony is mostly used for conviction in a court of law, but it can also be unreliable since eyewitness testimony can convict the un-guilty person. From case experience they found out for themselves that all of the cases they convicted from eyewitness testimony were found innocent through DNA evidence and were exonerated from the cases. Scientific evidence and studies shown in the past mentioned that an accurate description of a person can be very deceiving and inaccurate when placing yourself at the scene of the crime.

For example, at the crime scene when a robber has his gun pointed directly to your face. The witnesses are most likely going to pay attention to is the fear of the gun facing towards you. Instead of paying attention to the other details of the crime, you will most likely remember the details of the gun. In a situation where the witness is being robbed in the middle of the day, it is easier to paint a physical description of the man in broad daylight, than it is to remember the details of the man who robbed the witness in the middle of the night. Your senses in the middle of the night are already compromised.

Since it is an eyewitness testimony, the witness must remember what they saw at the crime scene; But it is easier said than done if half of these crimes took place in the middle of the night where witnesses can hardly see in the dark. Expert testimonies are not admissible because of contradictory rulings. Due to expert testimony, it is within the belief that jurors have already been influenced to believe in the expert witness testimony. Therefore, unbiased jurors are impossible under the circumstances where expert testimony can be useful. Many problems in the eyewitness testimony can be backed up with cognitive research and evidence to prove the flaws in eyewitness testimony.

Cognitive Psychology focuses on the scientific study of knowledge. Knowledge is acquired through experience and learning. There are three important scientific evidence from cognitive psychology that can help explain why eyewitness testimony can be unreliable. There are perception, attention, and memory that pertains in the brain.

Perception is important when perceiving other people and yourself. Perception allows individuals to access all their five senses in order to understand and be aware of their surroundings. There are many abstract things in the world that human yet can comprehend. Accessing our five senses help us comprehend what we do understand and break it down to simple means. Perception comes from previous experience of how shape is form. We use that information to figure out what shape is which.

For example, if you give a picture of a white vase in the middle of the figure surrounded by solid black faces, any individual will have a perception that will either perceive the white vase first or two black face figure based on your previous experience with colors and shapes. This is known as the Gestalt principle. The Gestalt principles is relying on your vision to see the shape exactly how it is, but to any other individual it is shifted in another angle. How you perceive the shape on moving is you and you alone. Therefore, our perception of people can change as well. Humans perceive people the way that we do because of our past experiences and their testimonies can be biased depending on their beliefs. The human mind can be influenced they are trying to identify the offenders through a lineup by having previous knowledge from a mugshot.

Individuals use their eyes to help us differentiate other individuals faces. The problem with this, is that recognizing each individual face is difficult to perceive. Since facial recognition is special and different from recognizing objects. It can easily be deterred if part of the brain is mainly used for recognizing faces, is damaged. Therefore, they are unable to recognize and distinguish between individuals faces. This is known as prosopagnosia. There have been cases where distinctive characteristics make it much more difficult to identify when matching other individuals with similar features. Because of this, typical faces that are shown later in the photo lineup will result in a higher chance of false identification. This is why it is important that when humans use their perception, they would use all of their attention on one thing they want to focus on whether it is people or objects.

What is attention?

Attention in terms of definition is using your focalization on one object or person, while perceiving to ignore your surrounding area. This is what we call selective attention. Selective attention can be very tricky. Humans tend to focus on one main objective. Therefore, they will ignore background of things, and let specific details of their surroundings slip away. So, when individuals decide to focus on one thing, their priming kicks in.

Priming is using our visual experience to expect what they want to expect, so they get all our neurons firing to detect certain stimulus. One thing we need to understand is that it is always better to pay attention to one thing rather than multiple things. Because with your attention everywhere else, you lose track of what you were trying to do and forget the specific details to your need. And when you split your focus on everything else, you are also splitting up your resources (stimulus) that could have been used for one major details.

For example, there has been a case studies where participants had to watch a tv screen with players wearing white and black shirts. The participants were instructed to ignore the players, while they were passing the ball around. However, the participants were so focused on players in front of them, they failed to realize that a person in a gorilla suit walked through the players.

So essentially humans need to be more wary of where their focus may be. This is important to know because during a crime situation, if a robber had a gun right in your face, you would not remember your surrounding area very well, because all your focus is on the gun pointing at your face. You will most likely remember the details of the gun, but for the robber it would be very hard to point out the physical description of the person who robbed you. And to top it off, it would be hard to recollect the entire event surrounding in your area, while your focus was on the gun. This is why it is important for eyewitness testimony to be accurate with their statement when recollecting their memories.

Memory is one of the most important parts of our brain. We use our memory to look back at what we have experienced and use it as our learning tools, and one of the most crucial things we use our memory for, is to recall important events of our lives. There are three stages of the process that we use to retain our memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding is basically processing information and then storing it for retrieval. There are two different kinds of memory that we use in our lifetime. There are short term memory and long-term memory.

Short term memory is defined as working memory. Working memory is simply activated all the time to process your thoughts or ideas. Long-term memory has all your knowledge and beliefs. For long-term memory, it takes a long time to process the information to remember it.

Even if you put a penny in front of you in hundreds of times, it would take a long time to encode that information for storage. It is easier to retrieve a memory by forming a connection between memories. By forming connections to a memory, it makes it easier to retrieve from storage. However, it is easy to forget your memory in a few days if not rehearsed. By rehearsing you are able to retain information regarding what you have seen or heard. Therefore, if you do not remember but have a sense of familiarity. You are making an inference that you have felt this before.

There are cases where participants that tried to remember one of the people in the lineup but could not pinpoint exactly where the participants remember them from. In truth, they have only seen the face from a photograph. They ended up falsely making errors from the lineup due to seeing a photograph from a mugshot. The participants falsely believed that they have seen the faces at the original crime but only ended up seeing them from a mugshot. This is known as source confusion.

Regardless of what they cannot seem to remember. They basically rely on intuition and gut feelings based on their familiarity that they have seen them before. Leading towards a misidentification. According to research, if they are not sure of the memory of the suspect. It would be more difficult for them to identify the real suspect in the lineup. (John C. Brigham, Adina W. Wasserman and Christian A. Meissner, 14,1990) As mentioned before, it is easier to retrieve memories when you make a connection to it. By gathering bits by bits of memories, you can make a connection between them. Thus, retrieving from storage on what you encoded before. The problem with this concept is that while forming connection with memories help retrieval path, it can also hurt you because between the connection they cannot seem to remember when the memory has stopped. Therefore, other related knowledge begins to invade the memory event. This is called intrusion error.

For eyewitness testimony, memories are simply data for people to use when recollecting the events that transpired during the crime. Memories can easily be influenced when being questioned by the prosecutor. In court they can use their emotions and place false memory into the witness to prosecute them. And that is a huge problem with eyewitness testimony. Because of the influence of intrusive error and manipulating the memories of the eyewitness. It can easily work in favor of prosecuting who they feel would be the guiltiest person for the crime, based on their familiarity instead of being completely confident of their own source of memory.

Daniel J Simons and Christopher F. Chabris did a study of eyewitness identification to see how accurate their memories are by showing different demographics individuals. Their conclusion in the end was that there is a misconception of beliefs about memory that should be careful and should not be trusted when using common sense for the eyewitness testimony. Because of these misconceptions about memory and psychology. It is firmly to believe that because of these misconceptions they would lead to false accusation based on their faulty testimony.

Research has shown that eyewitness testimony has prosecuted many innocent people to jail who have been exonerated by DNA evidence later throughout the years because they were not available for the court to use. Many convicted felons were accused of the crime that they did not do because of a faulty eyewitness testimony.

With these cognitive researches on perception, attention and memory. Eyewitness testimony can be faulty from the start because every individual cognitive skill and how they use it can be altered and flawed, since it is hard to paint a picture of the offender at the crime scene with their senses being compromised from the start. Their attention can easily be shifted based on where their focus was at the crime scene. Finally, their memory would not be clear if they are unable to recollect every detail of the crime and can be manipulated during the lineup and for being questioned. By using cognitive research and evidence, we can conclude many things on how to improve the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.

To improve eyewitness testimony, we can use cognitive interview, use neuroimaging to detect lies, use expert testimony, and get more physical evidence such DNA earlier for court use in order to convict the right offenders and prove the innocence who has been convicted of a crime they did not do.  The most effective method for improving eyewitness testimony is using Cognitive interview. This method is simply using context reinstatement. Context reinstatement uses the witness senses of relaying event which they were taken back to the crime. (Reisberg, 2015, p.260) Using this method helps recollect their memory by using their senses and connecting them to make it easier for them to retrieve from storage.

The second most effective method would be to use more neuroimaging. Neuroimaging can help validate a witness testimony by having a fMRI scan to show whether the witness is lying or telling the truth. However, this method can be flawed since it does influence the jurors to believe it to be prejudice. Neuroscientist Greene and Paxton have done a study in 2009. That research which part of the brain is active when telling the truth or lie. They found out that those who answered honestly did not show any other brain activity, but those who did showed more brain activity in other regions.

The last effective method we can use to improve eyewitness testimony is using more of expert testimony and DNA evidence to exonerate the innocent who did commit these crimes. Elizabeth F. Loftus has mentioned that when the court started using more of DNA testing. They helped exonerate a lot of wrongful convicted people around the 1990s. About 300 people who were innocent got exonerated because of DNA testing.

There are many elements to the eyewitness testimony that it makes unreliable from the start. In the legal system, eyewitness testimony can barely pinpoint the accuracy of the physical description of the offender they saw at the crime scene and having a fixed lineup influenced their choices even more. From the start, research and scientific evidence from cognitive psychology have proven that eyewitness testimony can be flawed from the start. Having perception being skewed, it would be hard to perceive clearly if the crime scene took place in the dark.

Not only that, your attention to the details of the crime may be unreliable since your focus would be everywhere without remembering the accurate event of the crime. Making the eyewitness testimony unreliable since recollecting the event of the crime is the most crucial part of the process. Improving the accuracy of eyewitness testimony is the only way we can say for certain that it is reliable to convict the correct guilty offenders.

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