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The Reliability of Eye-Witness Testimony


For centuries, the concept of using eye witness testimony has remained one of the most commonly relied sources of evidence for a long time. The criminal justice in multiple cases has relied on it to build its cases and use it as a credible source of evidence to argue their point of view. Over the years as the field of psychology advanced, there has emerged divergent views on its reliability spectrum based on various theoretical frameworks that question different aspects of cognitive memory of the mind. While the concept remains one of the most relied upon spectrums for providing accurate accounts of crime, undeniably multiple research findings have introduced different theories on how far the concept should be used due to accuracy issues of eye witness testimony.

One of the most common conceptual theories that have emerged includes the biased recall aspect that asserts that the memory for particular events may affect the degree certainty of eye witness testimony. Arguably while the eyewitnesses may recall the essential details about a crime, their memory of particular details of the events may be biased depending on various factors such as their worldview, cognitive memory status, and their capacity to exaggerate or alter the details of a specific event that they witness (Dahl et al., 2018). Per se, the validity of eye witness testimony, as the subsequent discussions will show, has undergone microscopic scrutiny by various researchers with very different conclusions made regarding the topic. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most widely used concepts to date, and where the testimonies of other witnesses corroborate, it is accepted as truth. More so, laboratory forensics’ advancement has also played a vital role in helping the criminal justice system validate the eye witness testimony. Primarily, the newfound interest in the eye witnbe4ss testimony mainly results from the growing evidence suggesting the capacity of one’s memory to bias. Thus, while eye witness remains a reliable source of evidence in judicial processes, there is a need to re-evaluate the procedural framework of how it is used and more importantly evaluated in these processes.

According to Loftus (2019), the error margins of the eye witness testimony depend on the various factors, including the motive to lie about the whole ordeal, the particular settings of the crime, and the meta-cognitive ability the person testifying. Thus, the arguments that eyewitnesses are open to interpretation and comprehensive evaluation are forthcoming, given the above factors. More importantly, the impact of overlooking the probability of error in criminal proceedings is enormous. First, the mental state of the witness at the time of the crime and in the period that may follow may distort their memory about the specific details of the crime. For example, if a witness was stressed or in the period that followed suffered from any form of post-traumatic stress, there is a high likelihood that their account of the whole ordeal becomes distorted. Psychologists have also suggested that one’s personal views regarding a crime may influence their testimony’s accuracy. Real-life case scenarios with limited forensic evidence to support the eye witness testimony become very had to evaluate. Thus, there is a need to adopt particular legal standards through which eye witness testimony is vetted and approved as valid.

Huggs (1899) observed that the outcomes of the criminal justice systems, especially on trial, rely significantly on the eye witness accounts and, therefore, the need to ensure high accuracy is imminent. Thus, the degree of certainty regarding the eye witness testimony must be guaranteed to ensure that judicial processes are efficient(Hugo, 1899). More importantly, that justice is not compromised due to poor memory, falsified testimonies, and biased memory about how particular events unfolded. A study6 conducted by Dahl et al., (2018) about a shooting incidence that happened in Sweden, it was found that while the landmark details of the incidence were correct among all the witnesses, specific details about the incidence such as the number of shots at the scene were inconsistent. Some reported having heard five shots while others heard eight, and others were not sure. From the findings of this research, it is evident that human memory may have different versions of particular events despite having witnessed an event. In light of this observation, it’s correct to hypothesize that indeed, there is plausible reaso0n for the reevaluation of how eye witness testimony is applied in the judicial processes.

For eyewitnesses and police officers, witnessing a crime exposes an individual to a certain degree of psychological trauma. While there is no universally accepted theoretical perspective of measuring the degree of impact of the trauma, it is evident that it exists. Thus, while the extent of impact differs from one person to another, it is evident that memory performance is greatly affected just because it exists(Dahl et al., 2018). Therefore, as proposed earlier, a witness to a crime before they are considered reliable witnesses must undergo a cognitive memory evaluation to recall the details of the crime accurately.

Another critical area of concern about the eye witness’s reliability is the emotional status of an individual at the time of the crime. In retrospect, an individual’s emotional elements play a considerable role in the specific forms of memory that one recalls an incident(Loftus, 2019). To illustrate, a victim of a specific crime such as rape may have biased memory of a similar incidence. Thus, they may distort the details of a crime, consciously or otherwise of they witnessed. These forms of bias are common, especially when there is a form of direct connection to the crime itself or the parties involved. As such, as some of the scholarly findings avow, the emotional paradigm may be a significant factor that may compromise how one remembers an incident or rather testifies about it in a court of law.

To conclude, while eye witness testimony may not be eliminated as one of the core pillars of the judicial process, there is surmountable evidence that shows there is a need to apply multiple principle standards that critically evaluate the quality of the testimony. Undeniably, the human memory does operate as a machine but instead is vulnerable to multiple factors, including stress, memory issues, and personal bias that may significantly affect the way that eyewitnesses recall the fundamental aspects of a crime. In all fairness, based on the findings of this paper, eye witness testimony is only reliable if it is corroborated, evaluated impartially based on the real-life settings, and existing forensic evidence present at the scene of the crime.


Dahl, M., Granér, S., Fransson, P., Bertilsson, J., & Fredriksson, P. (2018). Analysis of eyewitness testimony in a police shooting with fatal outcome – Manifestations of spatial and temporal distortions. Cogent Psychology5(1).

Hugo, V. (1878). The history of a crime: The testimony of an eye-witness.

Loftus, E. F. (2019). Eyewitness testimony. Applied Cognitive Psychology.


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