Eyewitness evidence can be fundamental when it comes to solving crimes, however, with the increasing number of cases now being exonerated by DNA evidence, the questions lies, what degree of confidence should be placed on the evidence of the eyewitnesses alone? Countless factors are associated with the accuracy and consistency of eyewitness evidence, such as line up content, line up instructions, the questioning techniques of interviewers and notably the gender and/or age of the witness. Eyewitness testimony may not always be accurate, but despite its weaknesses, by using empirical studies to guide reforms, eyewitness testimony can be an extremely beneficial instrument in the criminal justice system. Inaccurate evidence is not necessarily due to the individual’s testimony. Inaccuracy stems from the processes and methods used by the justice system to elicit the evidence from the eyewitness.
A great deal of research has been completed in relation to the accuracy of the eyewitness testimony given by children. This research is based largely on the issue of children’s memory and suggestibility. Peterson and Biggs (2006) ran a study that involved a selection of 90 children, aged between 2 and 13 years old. The study concentrated on the complications that can occur with specific questions being asked of children when they are in the midst of trauma, and the effects that obscurity can have on the accuracy of the evidence. “Researchers have long noted the problems with children’s understanding of the task demands” (Pg. 287) and if interviewers are permitted to take advantage of a child’s vulnerability with suggestive and misleading questions, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to deem that the results gathered would lack consistency and accuracy. A problematic factor that is inherent in child interviews is the nature of specific questions that are asked of children as there is “serious ambiguity in terminology and methodology among researchers” (Pg. 280). The results of this study support the findings from an earlier study carried out by Goodman and Reed (1986).
Their study consisted of 48 participants ranging between 3 and 40 years of age, with an equal number of females and males in each age group. The study focused on differing procedures involving line up’s, suggestive/objective questioning and free recall. The studies indicated that if “5-6 year old children are questioned in a non-suggestive manner and provided with a non-suggestive lineup, their eyewitness accuracy can equal or even exceed adults” (Pg. 328). As mentioned above, these results provide clear evidence that with the correct guides and practices in place, the testimony given by an eyewitness can be beneficial to the criminal justice system.
The study makes note of various jurisdictions that have put in place procedures to deal with concerns of accuracy of evidence provided by child witnesses. These reforms have seen courts and legislatures passing specific laws governing the testimony given by children. In these jurisdictions, the laws now involve competence examinations to be undertaken by children in order for the court to determine the child’s “intelligence, memory, ability to distinguish truth from lies and understanding of the necessity to speak the truth” (Pg. 318). Therefore, it could be said, the child’s competence lies with the judge’s decision and the questioning process undertaken by the authorities.
Saywitz and Camparo (1998) conducted a review of practice which focused on research into developmental stages of children and provided “suggestions from a developmental perspective, informed by both experience and research” (Pg. 825). The general guidelines that the study reviewed were; developmental sensitivity, developmental assessment, phrasing/content of questions, objectivity, reducing suggestibility, overcoming anxieties, flexibility and the interpretation of responses. The purpose of the study was to inform practitioners of how to access the correct procedures to gain accurate eyewitness testimony when facilitating an exchange of evidence with children. Therefore the age of an eyewitness is an important point to note when considering the accuracy of eyewitness identification, especially with the case of very young children providing significantly inferior accuracy than adults if questioned incorrectly. When children are questioned in the same method as adults, misinterpretation and errors can weaken the child’s credibility and the accuracy of their testimony. The fact however remains that eyewitness testimony can be beneficial if caution is exercised when interviewing children so as to not repeat questions, suggest information, or allow for interviewer assumptions and/or bias.
As well as age, the gender of an eyewitness has been consistently linked to issues with the accuracy and consistency of evidence. Jacqueline and Wolfgang (1986) referenced one of the earliest empirical studies of gender differences in eyewitness testimony, that of William Stern (1903-1904) with the opinion that “women’s eyewitness testimony was less accurate and less resistant to the influence of misleading information than men’s” (Pg. 565). Research has since revealed a female advantage in the number of details, and the accuracy of memory recall when providing eyewitness testimony. A study undertaken by Areh (2011) states “gender is one of the factors significantly influencing memory recall” (Pg. 559). The study concentrated on “sex differences in the accuracy and quantity of memory recall for specific details of an event” (Pg. 559). The sample included 280 participants, with ages ranging from 18 to 21 years and gender division of 161 females to 119 males. The research highlighted a number of variables contributing to the variance of memory recall between genders, such as “different levels of motivation, different expectations, and different experience” (Pg. 560).
This reinforces the point that there is an abundance of outlying factors that can contribute to the accuracy of an individual’s testimony, and these factors must be recognized to identify inconsistencies in testimony rather than ignore eyewitness testimony altogether. The research documented gender differences in memory recall, with the following hypotheses developed: “(1) accuracy of memory recall shows a female advantage, (2) females outperform males in the accuracy of person descriptions, (3) males are as reliable as females in describing an event without person descriptors, (4) females outperform males in the quantity of memory recall, and (5) males express a greater confidence in their memory recall” (Pg. 560). Overall, the results indicated that gender differences are “most pronounced for victim description, with females recalling significantly more true details than males” (Pg. 561). Furthermore Areh states that “special attention should be paid to gender-related differences for the victim’s appearance; as in this category, females outperformed males despite seeming less confident” (Pg. 562), which again shows that when assessing the reliability and accuracy of the eyewitness testimony, confidence levels can be misleading between genders. The point remains that despite the inconsistencies, eyewitness testimony when administered with the correct process, is a valid resource.
An earlier study into gender difference in eyewitness testimony was undertaken by (Shaw & Skolnick, 1999), with 200 participants divided evenly in gender. The research concentrated on same-gender eyewitness-intruder pairs with a noticeable outcome in relation to opposite gender identification. This is highlighted in the following quote, “the eyewitness recalled the features of an opposite-gender intruder better than those of a same-gender intruder” (Pg. 2339). However, when the intruder was not armed, own-gender bias is more likely to be present. Researchers Wells and Olson (2003) indicated in their review of a meta-analysis by Shapiro & Penrod (1986) that “females might be slightly more likely to make accurate identifications but also more likely to make a mistaken identification than are males (due to females being more likely to attempt an identification), thereby yielding an overall equivalent diagnosticity for males and females” (Pg. 280). This again describes how the factors rendering the accuracy of eyewitness testimony need to be monitored when accumulating evidence to allow for accurate evidence.
Two studies concerned with the consistency and accuracy of eyewitness testimony were conducted by Brewer, Potter, Fisher, Bond, and Luszcz (1999). The focus of the initial study saw “potential jurors indicating the degree to which they considered that various witness on stand behaviours, indicated testimonial accuracy” (Pg. 297). This study consisted of 69 participants, 16 males and 53 females, and ages that ranged from 18 to 42 years. Jurors were able to recognise with a high degree of accuracy, the accuracy and consistency of the witnesses testimony. The second study examined the “relationship between consistency and accuracy of testimony” (Pg. 297). When witnesses were telling the truth and were then asked a question in a suggestive way, they became inconsistent with their testimony. The forensic relevance in both these studies was that practically all of the testimonies given by the witnesses may have been subject to having the evidence discredited in court. Therefore it is important to prepare witnesses for cross examination to avoid their testimony being discredited, rather than not using eyewitness testimony at all.
Despite the fact that there is a significant body of psychological research that exists calling into question the substantial reliance that the criminal justice system has on the evidence provided by eyewitness testimony, it cannot be denied that with improved questioning techniques and the careful preparation of the witness, eyewitness testimony can still be a reliable source in any criminal investigation. As detailed above, the gender and age of eyewitnesses are proven variables that affect the accuracy of testimony given, particularly when applied to certain areas of the criminal justice system. It is an obligation of the criminal justice system to consider all factors that may influence an individuals’ response when providing eyewitness testimony. The implications of testimonial inconsistences in cases can happen far too often, however with procedures and reforms implemented to guide the identification of inaccuracies, the testimony given by eyewitnesses is too valuable to discount in the criminal justice system.
Areh, I. (2011). Gender-related differences in eyewitness testimony. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(5), 559-563.
Brewer, N., Potter, R., Fisher, R. P., Bond, N., & Luszcz, M. A. (1999). Beliefs and data on the relationship between consistency and accuracy of eyewitness testimony. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 13(4), 297-313.
Goodman, G. S., & Reed, R. S. (1986). Age differences in eyewitness testimony. Law and Human Behavior; Law and Human Behavior, 10(4), 317.
Jacqueline, L. C., & Wolfgang, G. B. (1986). A re-examination of William Stern’s classic eyewitness research. Perceptual and motor skills, 63(2), 565-566.
Peterson, C., & Biggs, M. (2006). Interviewing children about trauma: Problems with “specific” questions. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 10(2), 279-290.
Saywitz, K., & Camparo, L. (1998). Interviewing child witnesses: A developmental perspective. Child abuse & neglect, 22(8), 825-843.
Shaw, J. I., & Skolnick, P. (1999). Weapon focus and gender differences in eyewitness accuracy: Arousal versus salience. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(11), 2328-2341.
Wells, G. L., & Olson, E. A. (2003). Eyewitness testimony. Annual Review of Psychology, 54(1), 277-295.