The Eyewitness-Kelly Sechler

As we were talking in class about individual verses group memory and how perception influenced truth I became very interested in how these aspects influence the validity of eyewitness accounts in the United States court system. Sometimes witnesses think they are telling the truth but the memories have become confused. One example of this is explained in the book Your Memory: A User’s Guide. The author describes a situation where,”Australian eyewitness expert Donald Thomson appeared on a live TV discussion about the unreliability of eyewitness memory. He was later arrested, placed in a lineup and identified by a victim as the man who had raped her. The police charged Thomson although the rape had occurred at the time he was on TV. They dismissed his alibi that he was in plain view of a TV audience and in the company of the other discussants, including an assistant commissioner of police. The policeman taking his statement sneered, “Yes, I suppose you’ve got Jesus Christ, and the Queen of England, too.” Eventually, the investigators discovered that the rapist had attacked the woman as she was watching TV – the very program on which Thompson had appeared. Authorities eventually cleared Thomson. The woman had confused he rapist’s face with the face the she had seen on TV” (Baddeley, 2004).
Baddeley, A. (2004). Your Memory: A User’s Guide. Richmond Hill, Canada: Firefly Books.

Unfortunately these situation can be all too common. One reason this occurs is because people can be way too optimistic about the clarity of there memories. Because we all want to beleive that our own memories are accurate jurors can also can be quick to assume that a witness’s memory is much better than it really is. According to the text The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down To Size, there are six different factors that cause unreliability in memory. 1)Memory is ‘blurred’: Are memory is more apt to store the general feel of things instead of specific details. 2)Memory fills in the gaps: If our memory is insufficient then are minds start taking facts from other sources. 3)Memory systematically distorts perception: We remember extremes, underestimating the low and overestimating the high. 4)Memory is personal: We remember what we perceive happened which is often different from the actual events. 5)Memory is based on question retrieval method: Questions can supply information that we then incorporate into our answer. 6)Memory changes over time and with retelling: Over time details are droped and we incorporate new memories into the old memory. Norretranders, T., J. (1999). The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down To Size, p186-87. New York: Penguin Book

So how much can we count on eyewitness accounts in court and how much should these testimonies be negated by other evidence. Maybe the more science understands how memory works the more we can work to discerning the ‘truth’ so it may be used in court.


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