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Eye Witness Memory

The study of eyewitness memory was one of the first topics to being scrutinized when forensic
psychology began to establish towards the end of the 19th Century.

The first recorded example of a psychologist acting as an expert witness in a court of law was in 1896
when Albert Von Schrenk Notzing testified at the trial of a man accused of murdering three women.

Drawing on research into memory and suggestibility he argued that pre-trial Publicity meant that
witnesses could not distinguish between what they actually saw and what had been reported in the

What Is Eyewitness Testimony?

Eyewitness testimony is what happens when a person witnesses a crime (or accident, or other legally
important event) and later gets up on the stand and recalls for the court all the details of the witnessed
event. It involves a more complicated process than might initially be presumed. It includes what
happens during the actual crime to facilitate or hamper witnessing, as well as everything that happens
from the time the event is over to the later courtroom appearance. The eyewitness may be interviewed
by the police and numerous lawyers, describe the perpetrator to several different people, and make an
identification of the perpetrator, among other things.

Why Is Eyewitness Testimony an Important Area of Psychological Research?

When an eyewitness stands up in front of the court and describes what happened from her own
perspective, this testimony can be extremely compellingit is hard for those hearing this testimony to
take it with a grain of salt, or otherwise adjust its power. But to what extent is this necessary?

There is now a wealth of evidence, from research conducted over several decades, suggesting that
eyewitness testimony is probably the most persuasive form of evidence presented in court, but in
many cases, its accuracy is dubious. There is also evidence that mistaken eyewitness evidence can
lead to wrongful convictionsending people to prison for years or decades, even to death row, for
crimes they did not commit.

Faulty eyewitness testimony has been implicated in at least 75% of DNA exoneration casesmore
than any other cause (Garrett, 2011). In a particularly famous case, a man named Ronald Cotton was
identified by a rape victim, Jennifer Thompson, as her rapist, and was found guilty and sentenced to
life in prison. After more than 10 years, he was exonerated (and the real rapist identified) based on
DNA evidence. For details on this case and other (relatively) lucky individuals whose false
convictions were subsequently overturned with DNA evidence, see the Innocence Project website
(http://www.innocenceproject.org/ (http://www.innocenceproject.org/)).

Cognitive Processes

The formal study of eyewitness memory is usually undertaken within the broader category of
cognitive processes. Cognitive processes refer to all the different ways in which we make sense of the
world around us. We do this by employing the mental skills at our disposal such as thinking,
perception, memory, awareness, reasoning and judgment. Although cognitive processes can only be
inferred and cannot be seen directly, they all have very important practical implications within a legal
If you accept that the way we think, perceive, reason and judge is not always perfect then its easy to
understand why cognitive processes and the factors influencing these processes are studied by
psychologists in matters of law Not least because of the grave implications that this imperfection can
have within the criminal justice system.