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Is Eyewitness Identification Reliable in Criminal Cases?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2370 words Published: 26th Jul 2021

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For as long as criminal acts have been committed, the relevance and reliability of eyewitness accounts have been scrutinized for its implications when applied in a court of law. Through the study of an individual’s memories, psychology has attempted to gain an understanding of the reliability of eyewitness accounts. This new realm of psychology is referred to as forensic psychology as it entails both the study of law and psychological science. Generally speaking, the consensus around the reliability of eyewitness accounts is that they are an essential component of the justice system, however, do face some shortcomings that can reduce the credibility of the witness and the evidence given. Research conducted shows that human beings memories are often complex, imperfect and malleable and that the accuracy of memories is heavily subjected to the impacts of situational and environmental factors, biases & stressors (Pashlar, 2013). These factors are dubbed estimator variables, and are not under the direct control of the courts and are very much reliant on witness memory. If a witness makes a false identification which results in conviction of the implicated individual, this can result in substantial and irreversible consequences for the implicated individual. Common losses include the reduction of civil liberties and health deterioration. Thankfully, DNA evidence is used in the majority of criminal cases where applicable to confirm the identity of the offender, and in the case of 75% of individuals exonerated for crimes they weren’t responsible for was effective in disproving the credibility of the eyewitness account (Wells, 2014). In this essay, we will discuss the reliability of eyewitness accounts in the Ronald Cotton case, where after serving 10 years incarcerated for the rape and burglary of Jennifer Thompson-Canine in 1984 (Ronald Cotton – Innocence Project, 2017).

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Cotton’s troubles began in July 1984, when he was accused of being the perpetrator of burglary & rape of Jennifer Thompson-Canine and was falsely identified in a photo lineup and a live lineup by the victim (Weir, 2016). Jennifer stated that during the assault, she made a commendable amount of conscious effort to remember the perpetrator’s physical characteristics so she could be able to make a positive identification later on and reported straight to the police after the incident occurred (Lab, 2017). Police worked with her to compose a composite sketch of the offender and provided police with a group of potential suspects, one of whom was Ronald Cotton. The police conducted a photo lineup of potential suspects and after tome timely deliberation, the victim identified Ronald Cotton as the offender, albeit hesitantly, stating that he looked like the perpetrator and “thinks” it’s him. A live lineup was conducted and Jennifer identified Ronald Cotton with 100% certainty (“Ronald Cotton – Innocence Project”, 2017). Most of the evidence against Ronald Cotton was purely circumstantial and the prosecution’s entire case to secure a conviction, relied heavily upon the victim’s positive identification. Ronald Cotton was convicted despite the shaky evidence against him and during his post-conviction trial, was sentenced to life in prison plus 54 years. He had attempted to appeal the court’s decision numerous times but was very much unsuccessful and remained in prison. It was until 1995 when the Burlington Police Department handed over all evidence to the defense and included a DNA sample of the offender. A simple DNA test comparing that sample and a sample from Ronald Cotton cleared him all of charges and after serving 10.5 years incarcerated, he was finally exonerated (“Ronald Cotton Innocence Project”, 2017.  When the victim positively identified Ronald Cotton as the man who broke into her home and sexually assaulted her at knifepoint, she believed with 100% certainty that he was the one who did it, so how did she make such a crucial error? This is where psychological research enters and aims to assist us in incomprehension of how easily prejudiced memory is and how malleable they are to outside factors.

If we examine Cotton’s case further, we could identify that some degree of post identification feedback would have played a part in Cotton’s wrongful conviction. A small exchange between the victim “how did I do?” and the officer in charge of the lineup “you did great, Ms. Thompson” (Garrett, 2017)  after the victim identified Cotton as her perpetrator in two consecutive lineups. The victim even remarked that “he looked most like him”. These exchanges may seem warranted, given the traumatic violation of her home and her body the victim had been through but according to a 2017 study, post identification can contribute to a false conviction (Smarlaz & Wells, 2014) and is further supported by the study conducted by Douglass et al. (2010) & MacLean et al. (2011). This study theorizes that if a victim is given confirming feedback after to accurate & mistaken eyewitness testimonies would make it incredibly difficult for jurors to differentiate between the two types of testimonies. Confirming feedback is stated as refraining from informing the witness that the perpetrator is participating in the lineup. This would reduce eyewitness biases as the witness would have no preconceived ideas that were externally influenced as to who would have committed the criminal offense against them. In this study, participants were selected from various universities and were divided into two phases. The first phase consisted of participants viewing a 28-second video of a male switching bags at an airport. After the viewing concluded, the study’s aim was revealed to be to identify the bag switcher as the bag he left at the airport contained an explosive device. Participants were divided into two groups at random, one group received confirming feedback and the other receiving none. Individually they then gave the testimonies of their identification of the offender and other participants were asked if they thought the account what accurate to the events transpired or not. Interestingly, the participants differentiated between accurate and inaccurate testimonies when the witness didn’t receive post identification feedback but struggled to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate testimonies when the witness had been given confirming feedback. If we apply this study’s conclusions to Cotton’s case then we can see that not only did the police fail to inform the victim that the perpetrator may be present in the live lineup, but also increased her falsely awarded confidence in her testimony by providing her with confirming feedback. This would have contributed to a more persuasive false recount of the events and would have made it an extremely difficult task for jurors to distinguish had she not acquired confirming feedback.

Confirming feedback after lineups are one of the many factors that could have affected the outcome of Cotton’s false conviction. Another study conducted in 2017, examined how a victim’s confidence levels were influenced after a crime was committed with the involvement of a weapon (Carlson, Dias, Weatherford & Carlson, 2017). This factorial designed experiment constructed its methods around the Weapons Theory Effect which suggests that when an offender presents a weapon during a criminal occurrence, it can have a negative impact on the victim’s memory of the events. This is inclusive of the ability to correctly identify the perpetrator. This theory suggests that victims don’t consider how much of a distraction a weapon presents during an altercation (born from an understandable concern for the preservation of life), and completely underestimate the impact this would have on their memory of the incident based on the assumption that the focus was primarily on the weapon and not the offender themselves. This could potentially lead to wrongful convictions based on falsely confident testimonies. This hypothesis can also be applied to cases involving concealed weaponry providing the victim is made aware of the weapon. In this study, 655 university students participated alongside 579 participated from a national survey sample. Three different versions of a scenario were acted out using the same actors for each role, the first being the weapon is produced, the second being the weapon is referred to and the offender can be seen concealing it in his pocket and the third the weapon is not produced. To eliminate selection bias, the line-ups where the perpetrator was to be present or absent were selected by double-blind techniques. The participants were randomly divided into groups and each group watched the video but were only instructed to pay close attention to the video but weren’t given any more instructions after that. After a brief break, each participant was asked to identify the bag switching perpetrator in the video or indicate that they couldn’t and were only told that he may or may not be in the lineup. Each participant was also asked to grade their confidence levels in their identification.  Unsurprisingly, the results of this study further backed the notion of Weapons Theory Effect as participants struggled to identify the offender or their identification was inconclusive when the weapon wasn’t concealed. However, a surprising result was produced in that participants correctly identified the perpetrator when the weapon was concealed or when there was no weapon present. If we apply this study’s conclusions to Cotton’s case, we can hypothesize that the victim was too focussed her offender’s brandished weapon during her burglary and rape to retain key characteristics to positively identify him, despite claiming to local police to have paid close attention.  

In summation, the conclusion presented in this essay aims to serve to highlight some of the issues found with eyewitness identification in the criminal justice system which could potentially increase the occurrence of false convictions. Eyewitness identification and testimonies are an important aspect of implicating offenders who have indeed committed criminal acts, we must acknowledge the fact that it is not the most accurate or reliable evidence 100% of the time. To reduce the likelihood of false convictions, the courts must devise and introduce new methods to reduces some of the biases. One such method would involve simply informing the witness during a line-up that the perpetrator may or mot is physically present. Another method would be imposing strict regulations on the methods in identifying possible suspects and should be monitored using scientific research findings. Using these findings from credible methods will assist in the elimination of bias and reduce the impact of external factors as much as possible. Also, the understanding of is human memory is still evolving as more researchers seek to complete a more complicated and complete picture of these negatively influencing factors. For eyewitness testimonies and accounts of criminal acts to become more reliable and in turn more admissible in court, The judicial courts need to improve its policies and methods by using these scientific findings on accredited methods on reducing eyewitness bias, which would theoretically less false convictions.                                                                                                                                                                                               



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