The Unreliability Of Eyewitness Recall And Identification

Not all eyewitness reports by any one witness or across witnesses necessarily are inaccurate. However, the corruption of eyewitness descriptions and identification can occur at several stages. First, errors can occur at the acquisition stage in which information about the crime is perceived and encoded as memorial representations. Second, errors may be introduced at the retention stage (storage stage) which is the period of time that passes between the acquisition of selected information and its recollection. And third, errors occur during the retrieval or narration stage in which the witness recalls and/or recognizes stored information. Information cannot be accurately retrieved if it was not perceived. Information that is misperceived during acquisition also will be incorrectly remembered. Information can be forgotten, altered, or supplemented by factors that occur during the retention stage and retrieval stage. Finally, accurate and complete information may be available in memory but may not be accessible because of inappropriate questioning techniques. Memory is not the equivalent of a videotape recorder. Rather, memory is constructed and reconstructed from available bits and pieces of information into narrative wholes. Sometimes these constructions are reproduced relatively accurately, at other times they can be faulty and incomplete. Witnesses may fill in gaps and omissions through the use of inferences about what 'probably' must have happened. Theoretical understanding of eyewitness memory is based on research conducted in highly controlled laboratory settings, staged crimes, and field experiments involving store clerks, bank tellers, students and ordinary citizens ranging in age from young children to elders. In addition, the results of empirical research can be compared and contrasted with archival analyses of police records (e.g. van Koppen and Lochun, 1997; Yuille and Cutshall, 1986). Scientific knowledge about eyewitness memory is based on over 2000 empirically-based studies conducted in systematic research programs located in North America, the UK and other parts of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the Far East (Cutler and Penrod, 1995a). The same concern for hypothesis testing, objectivity, research design, measurement, explanation, and prediction cuts across all these research endeavours (Maass, 1996). The present knowledge of eyewitness identification does meet the general acceptance standards specified by law.

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