Eyewitness testimony is an account given by the witness of an event or crime. It is a legal term that is widely used at a trial. Eyewitness testimony is a controversial issue whereas many experts think that the quality of the account given by the witness depends on numerous psychological and external factors. However, there are cases when eyewitness testimony is the only clue for the police to find a guilty person or discover the actual situation. When it is impossible to trace forensic evidence, the only way out is to find a witness who has seen the entire event or crime with her own eyes. Although this method is unreliable, very often it helps to find the truth.
Eyewitness testimony is a valuable method in forensic science. Years ago, this method was the weightiest one. People did not try to look for any clues and evidence and the only reliable source of information about a crime was eyewitness testimony. When one said that he saw a criminal, he described that person and her actions. When the descriptions fitted the accused person, she was believed to be guilty. Therefore, forensic science of the past was based on eyewitness testimony.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to claim that eyewitness testimony is the best evidence. Let us pay attention to the factors that can influence the quality of the testimony. Firstly, it is stress or anxiety.
When one has witnessed a violent crime, it is hard to expect slight details that can help you discover the case. Violent crimes are very stressful. When one has witnessed a gun shooting, he will not be able to recall many details about this crime. Fear reduces the quality of memory considerably. On the other hand, although the witness is able to remember fewer details, the quality of the memory is stronger. Even if one is asked about the mentioned details of the crime in a few years, he will be able to recall them at once. Thus, anxiety helps witnesses remember information better. Unluckily, very often people remember unnecessary details that will never help at the trial.
The second factor is reconstructive memory. Doubtless, many people think that our memory resembles a video tape that records information accurately. In fact, our brains record information according to the schemas that fit in our norms of life. In simple words, this information should correspond to the existing knowledge about people, events, objects, etc. When we know someone’s habits and traits of character, we think that we can predict his further actions. Reconstructive memory is connected with the subjective interpretation of the event or crime. Sometimes we do not remember the specific case but we invent and add something new to the actual situation. Reconstructive memory is associated with numerous extra details generated but our brains. We see what we want to see. Moreover, our memory is changeable and it tries to generate the details that can fit in the description of the particular situation. Therefore, it is vital to ask several witnesses when researching a complicated case. Experts should remember about the tricky nature and imperfection of human memory.
The last problem is weapon focus. This factor is very harmful for the quality of eyewitness testimony. When one has become a witness of a robbery where weapon was involved, the quality of his testimony is questioned. When we see a criminal holding a gun or a knife, we will focus on the description of the weapon but not of the criminal’s appearance. We know that weapon brings pain and death and our eyes pay attention to it. No wonder, many witnesses cannot recognize a criminal even if he did not wear a mask. On the other hand, the value of weapon focus is overestimated.
It is possible to speak about prejudices and stereotypes that influence the quality of the testimony. When one dislikes the suspect’s appearance or behavior, he will add many facts that did not exist. Then, there is time distortion. Fear and stress prevents the witness from the adequate estimation of the crime’s duration. For example, the actual gun shooting could have lasted for ten seconds. However, the witness believes that the event lasted several minutes.
Eyewitness testimonial is a considerable method in forensic science. It helps experts solve difficult puzzles of complicated crimes when forensic evidence cannot be found. On the other hand, it is hard to say that eyewitness testimonial is 100% credible method whereas there are many internal and external factors that spoil the quality of the suggested testimonial.
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