Monday, January 11, 2010

Are Eyewitnesses Reliable?

An article in Scientific American questions the reliability of eyewitness identification. One of the major reasons that we should question eyewitness identification is that the process of recalling memories is more like reconstructing an event than replaying a video recorder.

"The uncritical acceptance of eyewitness accounts may stem from a popular misconception of how memory works. Many people believe that human memory works like a video recorder: the mind records events and then, on cue, plays back an exact replica of them. On the contrary, psychologists have found that memories are reconstructed rather than played back each time we recall them. The act of remembering, says eminent memory researcher and psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, is 'more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording.' Even questioning by a lawyer can alter the witness’s testimony because fragments of the memory may unknowingly be combined with information provided by the questioner, leading to inaccurate recall."

Our faith in eyewitness identification has important consequences. According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification plays a role in over 75% of wrongful convictions.

Historically, most judges in Utah and throughout the country have prevented attorneys from presenting scientific evidence of problems with eyewitness identification to juries. However, last month, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants should have the opportunity to call experts to testify regarding this important research. A story in the Salt Lake Tribune regarding the case can be found here and the Court's opinion, State v. Clopten, can be found here.

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