Eyewitness Testimony Research

Across many topics, eyewitness testimony remains a vivacious research area. The American Psychology-Law Society lists more than 1,400 references on the topic from 1883 and 2006. Eyewitness testimony research established roots as a research area in psychology over 100 years ago in Germany. There existed a strong German interest in eyewitness testimony (Sporer, 2006), and German scientists were engaging in productive research (Sporer, 2006) and conducting compelling teaching demonstrations in their classes (Munsterberg, 1908). In 1902, students in von Liszt’s criminology class at the University of Berlin found themselves as witnesses to an unexpected argument culminating in a gunshot (Munsterberg, 1908). As expected, students’ memories conflicted and were extremely poor. In 1906, Hugo Munsterberg extended this demonstration to a scientific meeting in Gottingen of “jurists, psychologists, and physicians, all, therefore, men well trained in careful observation” (p. 51). An individual in a colorful clown suit suddenly burst into the meeting, followed by a black man.Eyewitness Testimony Research A struggle ensued, a shot was fired, and then both confederates ran from the room. Munsterberg (1908) then challenged the audience to report the events. He reported the high error rate, the large amounts of missing information in witness account of events, and the extensive inclusion of false details by the trained observers. Munsterberg’s views were widely read at this time and inspired increased student enrollment across psychology (Sporer, 2006).

Unfortunately, social history interacted with academic history to decrease interest in eyewitness testimony research. Munsterberg strongly identified with his German heritage and was an outspoken critic of United States involvement in World War I (Sporer, 2006). Additionally, his influence waned within the psychological community, he did not have graduate students to continue his work at the end of his career, and he faced additional criticism of his testimony research in particular. Eyewitness testimony faded from the forefront of psychology and the law until a 1970s “renaissance” led by Elizabeth Loftus and many others (Sporer, 2006, p. i).

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Loftus inspired the reemergence of the field with studies on eyewitness errors and of the powerful effects of eyewitness testimony on juries. Her classic work, Eyewitness Testimony (1979/1996), defined the state of the field at that time and set the stage for productive decades of research. Unlike Munsterberg, Loftus had and continues to have a strong core of active students. She and her students inspired generations of researchers, who in turn helped to develop and continue a robust and consistent body of peer-reviewed investigation of eyewitness evidence (Wells et al., 2006). Eyewitness testimony is now a well-established research area in psychology, and the extensive body of work culminated in an empirically based 1999 set of U.S. Department of Justice guidelines for gathering eyewitness evidence.

A major gain in credibility of research on eyewitness testimony came with the advent of DNA testing within the legal system. Mistaken eyewitness testimony has led to a high yet unknown quantity of wrongful convictions across the United States. Individual examples are tragic and provide motivation for researchers and expert witnesses who may testify about potential eyewitness errors. For example, Kirk Bloodworth spent eight years in jail (two of them on death row) for the sexual assault and murder of a child in Maryland. Five eyewitnesses identified him as the perpetrator, and his conviction stood until DNA testing demonstrated that he was not guilty (Wells et al., 2006). Such tragedies run deep. Not only did these individuals lose years of their lives and time with their families to mistaken eyewitness testimony, but they have few or no options to seek damages or restitution for the legal errors that cost so much of their lives. These potential risks of false positives are particularly relevant in light of the ubiquitous nature of eyewitness testimony evidence.

The emergence of forensic DNA testing allowed investigators to determine definitively the guilt of some individuals who had previously been convicted of crimes. The Innocence Project (http://www.innocenceproject.org/, 2007) has taken center stage in the investigation of guilt in historical cases (Wells et al., 2006), and approximately 75 percent of mistaken convictions uncovered by the Innocence Project involved mistaken eyewitness identification of the defendant. Prior to forensic DNA testing, psychologists had argued that eyewitness testimony led to wrongful convictions, but DNA evidence led to greater recognition from the legal system of the potential contributions of psychologists for dilemmas in eyewitness testimony. Wells et al. noted that eyewitness testimony remains a viable and growing area in psychology and the law.

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