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Challenges of Relying on Eyewitness Testimony

Challenges of Relying on Eyewitness Testimony

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By Dr. Jade Pumphrey, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

Mistaken eyewitness identification has led to criticisms of the reliability of eyewitness testimony in court. Research has uncovered some of the conditions that can lead to inaccuracies and mistaken identities. In recent decades, DNA exonerations following faulty eyewitness identifications have contributed to a heightened desire to investigate eyewitness testimony with a more critical eye.

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The Trouble with Eyewitness Testimony

Eyewitness testimony is a legal term that refers to any account given by a layperson who has witnessed some type of event. Eyewitnesses are used during an investigation and may be called upon to help identify an offender. However, inaccurate eyewitness memory leads to mistaken identification and convictions of innocent people (Magnussen, Melinder, Stridbeck, & Raja, 2010; Wells & Quinlivan, 2009). There are several factors that affect the accuracy of witness accounts.

Law Enforcement Influence

During an investigation, eyewitnesses may have several interactions with law enforcement. These interactions could influence the witness’s recollection of the scene. For example, suggestive questioning by officers—which could be intentional or unintentional—can put pressure on a witness to omit, create, or change details of their account.

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Time Lapse

Time is another factor that can influence the accuracy of eyewitness accounts. While most statements are made immediately after the incident, there are times when witnesses may not be called to participate in a lineup until several weeks after the event. This passage of time often causes memories to slip. Cases that take years to go to court challenge witnesses to recall details that occurred years prior. Experts argue that those memories are now incomplete, tainted, and susceptible to influence.

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Science of Eyewitness Identification

Since the late 1800s, experts have suspected eyewitness identification to be highly susceptible to error. In 1907, Hugo Munsterberg, a forensic psychologist, published On the Witness Stand, a pioneering paper where he called into question the reliability of eyewitness identification by examining various scenarios and situations of eyewitness testimonies (Memon, Mastroberardino, & Fraser, 2008).

Munsterberg was particularly interested in the study of eyewitness memory after he found himself unable to recall certain aspects of a burglary that occurred at his home. He concluded that individual experiences, bias, and interest all impact a person’s ability to recall events. In some way, those variables play an important role in the regulation of transpired events (Memon et al., 2008).

Through his career, Munsterberg spent time examining illusions. He brought to light how different individuals will arrange and sequence events. In one study, he arranged for a few students to evaluate pictures with several dots on them. They were asked to interpret precisely what they saw after some period of time had passed (Memon et al., 2008). Munsterberg acknowledged that each picture was interpreted very differently by each individual subject.

Fallibility of Eyewitness Testimony

Bull, Valentine, and Williamson (2009) acknowledge that the outcome of eyewitness identification tests are also highly influenced by police. The process by which law enforcement administrators establish lineups can create circumstances for mistaken identification. How members are chosen, how they appear, the descriptions given, the methodology in the presentation of the lineup, and how the information is verbalized to the witness before and after the lineup are all said to have an impact.

In addition, there are several psychological factors that affect an eyewitness’s account, including their level of anxiety and stress, their ability to reconstruct memory and recall events, any hypersensitivity to weapons being used during the event, and their response to suggestive questionings made by law enforcement to invoke some type of specific response (Magnussen et al., 2010).

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Research has found that these factors can begin to impact an eyewitness at the scene and continue from that point. Law enforcement practitioners have been found to taint eyewitness evidence because of their personal biases such as needing to carry a case through to trial and general eagerness to collect information (Bull, Valentine, & Williamson, 2009).

Psychologists have discussed the concerns with eyewitness testimony for decades but changes to the process have been slow. Eyewitness testimony is compelling, which makes securing eyewitness testimony appealing to law enforcement who wish to resolve cases quickly. Attorneys continue to call on eyewitnesses and jurors continue to rely upon their testimony (Wells & Quinlivan, 2009).

Memory and Suggestive Questioning

Eyewitness testimony is highly dependent on human memory. Studies on human memory have shown that there are notable limitations to our ability to recall events accurately. Individuals are quick to forget details, especially over time, and in some circumstances they may not pick up on all relevant details to begin with. Stress and anxiety  can also then interfere with memory (Memon et al., 2008).

Despite growing research indicating that mistaken identity is still the primary cause of innocent convictions, not much has been done to prevent suggestive identification procedures. In Manson v Braithwaite (1977), the courts establish a two-pronged inquiry process known as the reliability approach to eyewitness testimony (Wells & Quinlivan, 2009).

The Supreme Court contends that the “issue of exclusion should not rest with whether there was unnecessary suggestiveness, but should be based instead on the question of whether the identification was reliable”(Wells & Quinlivan, 2009). The Supreme Court agreed upon a two-pronged test for excluding eyewitness identification evidence at trial (Wells & Quinlivan, 2009). First the court would need to inquire as to whether the procedure given by law enforcement was unnecessarily suggestive. If there was no suggestibility, then there is no apparent issue. If the court did find that unnecessary suggestion was present, then a second inquiry would decide on whether the identification was nevertheless, reliable (Wells & Quinlivan, 2009).

Case Background

Braithwaite was convicted of the sale and possession of heroin based only on identification evidence provided by undercover agent, Jimmy Glover. Glover did not actually know who he bought the heroin from, but he did provide a generalized description of the apartment where the exchange took place, its location, a fellow officer, and provided a photograph of Braithwaite. Using this photo alone, Glover claimed that the man in the photo was also the man from which he bought heroin (Wells & Quinlivan, 2009). The Supreme Court concluded that the identification procedure used in this case was suggestive and so a second inquiry was needed to examine the totality of the circumstances about whether suggestive procedure was responsible in giving rise to “substantial likelihood of irreparable mistaken identity” (Wells & Quinlivan, 2009, p. 3). The Supreme Court outlined five specific criteria for determining whether identification was reliable (Manson criteria). They are:

  • The opportunity to view the perpetrator at the scene of the crime.
  • The degree of attention the witness had on the suspect.
  • The extent to which the witness’s description of the suspect is accurate.
  • The time that has elapsed between being witness to the crime and identifying the suspect.
  • The level of certainty expressed by the witness identification.

With all things considered, the Manson v. Braithwaite two-pronged inquiry serves to dismiss suggestive procedures and, in many ways, creates “an illusion of protection against wrongful convictions based on eyewitness testimony” however, wrongful eyewitness convictions still occur (Wells & Quinlivan, 2009).


Several hundred people have been exonerated through DNA evidence over the past couple of decades. In many of these cases, individuals were wrongly convicted based on mistaken eyewitness identification. However, we cannot rely on DNA evidence to make up for the limitations of eyewitness accounts. For example, in some cases, DNA evidence has been tainted or destroyed making it impossible for those individuals convicted under mistaken identity, to be exonerated of their cases (Wells & Quinlivan, 2009).

Manson V. Braithwaite was decided in 1977, prior to DNA testing. Since this time, extensive eyewitness science and research has been explored. This calls into question whether the Supreme Court should consider modern science and findings since we now know substantially more about the limitations of eyewitness testimony and human memory that was not available at the time of Manson v. Braithwaite ruling.

About the Author: Dr. Jade Pumphrey has worked in higher education since 2006 and has taught more than 65 different criminal justice courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. She currently serves as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. Pumphrey obtained an AS in General Science, a BS in Criminal Justice, a MS in Forensic Science Investigations and a PhD in Public Safety/Criminal Justice. In addition to her work in higher education, Pumphrey volunteers for her local police department as an on-call victim assistant. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.


Bull, R., Valentine, T., & Williamson, T. (2009). Handbook of psychology of investigative interviewing: Current developments and future directions. Chichester, UK: Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Magnussen, S., Melinder, A., Stridbeck, U., & Raja, A. Q. (2010). Beliefs about factors affecting the reliability of eyewitness testimony: A comparison of judges, jurors and the general public. ACP Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24(1), 122-133.

Memon, A., Mastroberardino, S., & Fraser, J. (2008). Munsterberg’s legacy: What does eyewitness research tell us about the reliability of eyewitness testimony? ACP Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22(6), 841-851.

Wells, G. L., & Quinlivan, D. S. (2009). Suggestive eyewitness identification procedures and the Supreme Court’s reliability test in light of eyewitness science: 30 years later. Law and human behavior, 33(1), 1-24.


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