Eyewitness identification and testimony play a huge role in the criminal justice system today, but skepticism of eyewitnesses has been growing. Forensic evidence has been used to undermine the reliability of eyewitness testimony, and the leading cause of false convictions in the United States is due to misidentifications by eyewitnesses. The role of eyewitness testimony in producing false confessions and the factors that contribute to the unreliability of these eyewitness testimonies are sending innocent people to prison, and changes are being made in order to reform these faulty identification procedures.
Human memory is flexible and prone to suggestion. “Human memory, while remarkable in many ways, does not operate like a video camera” (Walker, 2013). In fact, human memory is quite the opposite of a video camera; it can be greatly influenced and even often distorted by interactions with its surroundings (Walker, 2013). Memory is separated into three different phases. The first phase is acquisition, which is when information is first entered into memory or the perception of an event (Samaha, 2011). The next phase is retention. Retention is the process of storing information during the period of time between the event and the recollection of a piece of information from that event (Samaha, 2011). The last stage is retrieval. Retrieval is recalling stored information about an event with the purpose of making an identification of a person in that event (Samaha, 2011).
There are many factors that can contribute to faulty eyewitness testimony, including own-race bias, focus on a weapon, stress, length of exposure to the stranger, eyewitness confidence, and events that occur after the incident, such as suggestive police procedures (Vallas, 2011). “Own-race bias, also known as the cross-race effect, refers to the fact that individuals have less difficulty identifying and remembering faces of their own race than those of a different, less familiar race” (Vallas, 2011). Research that has been performed on this factor shows that the chance of mistaken identification is 1.56 times greater in cases that involve different races than in cases involving same race identification (Vallas, 2011). This factor of own-race bias does not vary significantly among age groups. Other factors that affect eyewitness identification are violence, stress, and the focus on a weapon.
“Violence, stress, and the presence of a weapon at the time of a crime all may have detrimental effects on the ability of a witness to make an accurate identification” (Vallas, 2011). Stress distorts an eyewitness’s observations, and while it is understandable to focus on the weapon when faced with a situation in which the eyewitness is in danger, the focus on the weapon is not as important as the description of the perpetrator. Since it is not within the power of researchers studying the effects of violence and stress on witnesses to replicate the exact stress and violence of an actual crime,...