Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony

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Discuss the Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony [12 marks]

Eyewitness Testimony (EWT) is a legal term referring to an account provided by someone who has witnessed a crime taking place. In the justice system, judges and juries must make informed judgements on evidence provided by eyewitnesses, so if its reliability is questionable, then the way in which we deal with witnesses needs to be addressed. 


Yarmey (2004) was a field study looking into the accuracy of witness recall, when asked to describe and identify a target from a photo line-up. From a large sample of 215 males and 375 females across a wide age range, Yarmey found that that the witness's recall of a white female target was not as accurate as had been expected. Yarmey found that only 49% of the time a witness would be correctly identified in a photo line-up. It would seem that from this study EWT is not reliable, especially when comparing their experimental findings with a non-experimental group, where students estimated recall of withnesses to be much higher. It seems that we believe EWT to me more reliable than it actually is.

Yarmey's study is considered since it was a field study testing 'real' memory of participants in a real situation, in their own environment. The behaviours displayed should have been as natural as possible and of high ecological validity. The study has also been corrorborated by Haber & Haber 's (2001) meta-analysis, which found a similar recall rate of 51%, adding reliability to the study. However, it should not be forgotten that EWT is concerned with recall of criminal behaviours and arguably no 'real' EWT was recorded. It could mean that there was a lack of motivation to remember something that had no meaning to the witnesses involved.

Another study which looked into the reliability of EWT was Loftus & Palmer (1974). They conducted a lab study into recall and the effect of misleading questions affecting or distorting what we remember. In this study, witnesses observed videos of


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