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We strive to be perfect and achieve excellence, but the truth is that even if some of us may get close, a majority of us won’t get there. The truth hurts, but the basic underlying fact is that human beings are flawed.
This truth finds applications in many places. One such place is the empire of crime. Even if every criminal in the world were arrested, we’d never be able to stop crimes from happening. A law-abiding citizen may not be a threat to the society today, but there’s no telling what’s going to happen tomorrow. He might be the same for the rest of his life or might go on to commit a murder after having discovered his wife cheating on him. The fact that crime exists in the first place shows that we are far from perfect.
The world of crime is ugly, but the judicial system used to bring justice to society and make criminals pay is not up to the mark. There are flaws in the very basis of it and one of those flaws is almostblind belief in eye-witness identification. Eyewitness identification of a criminal suspect can be one of the most influential factors in a criminal investigation. Two consequences can result from an eyewitness account that is accepted by an investigation, and subsequently a court
of law. First, the eyewitness's information could lead to the removal from society of a dangerous offender. Secondly, “a false identification could possibly lead to the incarceration of an innocent individual while the guilty party remains as a risk to the community” (Decaire 1).
For the purpose of explanation, let’s consider a scenario. Place yourself in the position of one of the members of the jury. You are in a courtroom and a trial is in progress. A person is being tried for homicide and the public prosecutor brings up an eye-witness. The eyewitness is supposed to identify whom he saw commit the crime. The eye-witness thinks for a while and then points at the defendant implicating him.
As a member of the jury, you tend to give the eye-witness more credit and his account seems to have more value than the others. This is a serious flaw, because in truth the eye-witness is no better than any other witness.
Eyewitness identification is a process involving recognition and recall. Human memory is susceptible to change of information. An example of this is the misinformation effect in which “a person who witnesses an event gets his recollections all distorted when exposed to new and misleading information about the event later”(Lohn). This is
caused primarily when we talk to others about the event, when we are suggestively interrogated or when we read or view media coverage about the event. Sometimes we confuse our imagination and reality which is a phenomenon called “Imagination Inflation”(Lohn). This can be a source of error too.
As far as the recognition goes, people tend to have a risky response bias, which means that they guess a lot when making identifications. Our recognition abilities are poor. “Psychological studies indicate that only about thirty percent of what we observe is retrievable” (Coon).
Often the interviewer getting information from the witness affects the witness. Put yourself in the place of the public prosecutor now and let’s say you had a bias against the defendant. You would try to mould the eyewitness’ account by playing on the fact that the eyewitness is not too sure about what he saw. For a true account, the witness should be allowed to tell their story and not what you want them to say.
Besides external factors, there are internal factors which influence the witness too. The witness’ prior knowledge, experience and feeling should be taken into account as well as whether they have
any physical impairments or have undergone any trauma. Witnesses can also be influenced by what others say and as time between the event and the present increases, people tend to fill in information and the truth doesn’t remain the truth any longer. “Adults who were exposed to a stranger for forty-five seconds were able to provide fiftyfive percent correct recognitions after a week” (Shepherd).
The most important question to be asked is how can we stop this form happening. We can’t. What we can do is decrease the error to as low as possible. As I said before, human perfection is a far off dream and its not possible to get to perfection just before every trial. Some of the methods are given below:
Show Up Procedure In this method, the witness is shown one suspect and asked if he is the one. The suspect in reality is a placebo. If the witness says “yes”, then we know that the witness is biased and less weight is given to the witness’ testimony.
Blank Lineup Control
In this condition the witness is exposed to a police lineup that does not included the suspect. This technique is presumed to identify an eyewitness who has either a poor memory of the perpetrator or who would identify an individual in the lineup based on stereotypes or what they believe the investigator is looking for. While it is deceptive, the blank-lineup control is a very powerful a tool for identification of a witnesses’ response biases. An additional encouraging note is that the eyewitnesses’ ability to identify the suspect in a second lineup is not affected to a significant extent by the blank lineup.
Mock Witness Control In this case, individuals who are not eyewitnesses to an event are exposed to a normal lineup containing the suspect. This is a technique that can be quite effective in creating a valid and fair lineup. If a mock witness is able to identify the suspect at a higher rate, then there is a chance that a few things may be occurring. First, it is possible that the suspect stands out from the rest of the lineup because of the fulfillment of a certain stereotype of the criminal associated with this type of crime. It has actually been shown that a mock witness is able to identify the offender at a rate significantly higher then chance through a very basic description of the offender and the crime (like what
people would get from hearing other people talk about a crime) (Doob 1973). It is also possible that the mock witnesses are able to detect the investigators hypothesis regarding who the offender is. If an eyewitness, who has no memory of the event and has been given no description of the culprit, is able to identify the offender at a rate greater than chance, then the investigators hypothesis is being transposed onto the witness. The result is an identification based not on memory, but rather on the witnesses’ deductions.
Even though we have a few methods to decrease error, much of the efficacy of our methods depends on how we use them and that too must remain unbiased. Unfortunately, that seems like to much to ask for. The only way we can actually understand the importance and imperfection of eyewitness identification is if we were innocent and were identified by someone else as a murderer.
Coon, Dennis. Essentials of Psychology: Ninth Edition. Toronto: Thomson-Wadworth, 2003. Decaire, Michael. “The Psychology of Police Lineups.” Suite101.com: Real People Helping Real People. 16 Aug. 2003. 25 Nov. 2003 <http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/forensic_psychology/34107 >. Doob, A. N and H. Kirshenbaum. “Bias in police lineups - Partial remembering.” Journal of Police Science and Administration 1 (1973): 287-293. Lohn, Susan. “False Memories.” Introduction to Psychology. EmbryRiddle Aeronautical University. King Engineering and Technology Centre, Prescott. 4 November 2003. Shepherd, J.W. Identification after long delays. Chichester, England: Wiley, 1983.
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