Eyewitness Testimony and Misidentification


There is a common saying, probably of Russian origin, that ascribes lying to an eyewitness. This saying is like “He says lies just like an eyewitness does”. After watching Lesley Stahl’s 60 minutes two-part Eyewitness Video, one can conclude this saying is not farfetched and, in fact, is closer to the truth. It has been a practice in the legal arena that the eyewitness testimony, once admitted in court, is practically evidence. It is treated in the same sense as evidence like empirical findings. However, much of the eyewitness account hinges on the witnesses’ credibility, since some eyewitness testimonies and accounts have led to misidentifications and wrongful or false convictions. In the two-part Eyewitness Video, it comes out clear that the memory of the eyewitness cannot always be relied upon, as it is malleable, easily corrupted, and easily influenced. This paper summarizes and explains what happened in the two-part video with Lesley Stahl’s report on flaws in eyewitness testimonies that often result in wrong convictions and on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.

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Summary of What Happened in the Eyewitness Video

In this video, Stahl (2009) profiles a rape case from North Carolina where the testimony of the eyewitness and victim (Jennifer Thompson, then a 22-year-old college student) turned out to be in the wrong. This wrong testimony had led to the conviction of an innocent man (Ronald Cotton) who was later incarcerated for 11 years before DNA evidence proved he was innocent. The video illustrates how wrongful convictions, as a result of the flaws in the manner in which the police pull together and produce a target’s visual memories, are brought about. The video ends by showing two psychologists discussing the fragile nature of the human memory. Human memory can easily be influenced by eyewitnesses’ strong persuasion that they are telling the truth, and yet, in the end they are proven erroneous. Also, Eyewitness gives shocking statistics that America has more than 200 convicted prisoners exonerated and proven innocent by DNA evidence. What is common about these wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA tests is that they greatly relied on eyewitness testimony.

Cognitive Psychological Principles that Apply to the Eyewitness Case from PowerPoint Slides

In the Chapter 6 presentation, the principles of episodic and semantic memory in long-term memory structures are discussed. Long-term memory studies view long-term memory as covering a span stretching from about 30 seconds ago to the earliest memories of one’s life (Goldstein, 2015). Encoding in the long-term memory often takes place through semantic encoding – recognition memory where previously encountered stimulus is identified. The episodic principle analyzes the memory of personal events while semantic one analyzes facts and knowledge. Episodic memory involves mental time travel and is sometimes not accurate. Semantic memory does not involve mental time travel but is often influenced by the meaning of words and previous experience that changes one’s response without conscious awareness.

Chapter 7 presents two principles: encoding and retrieval of information from the long-term memory. The principle of encoding information explores the process of acquiring information and transforming that information into memory. On the other hand, the principle of retrieval explores transferring information from the long-term memory to the working memory.

Chapter 8 presentation gives four cognitive psychology principles. The first one is autobiographical memory (AM), which explores memory for specific experiences from a person’s life, including both semantic and episodic components. The second is the principle of flashbulb memories, which explores memory for circumstances surrounding shocking and highly charged important events. The third is the principle of schemas and scripts. Schema refers to the knowledge about certain aspect of the environment while script is the conception of sequence of actions that usually take place during a particular experience (Goldstein, 2015). According to the schema and script principle, memory can be influenced by inferences that people make based on their experiences (script) and knowledge (schema). The fourth principle under Chapter 8 presentation is the principle of false memories. This principle explores the errors and inaccuracies in eyewitness memory as a result of mistaken identity and the constructive nature of memory.

Chapter 9 presentation explores the principles of conceptual knowledge and categorization. Conceptual knowledge refers to the knowledge that enables one to recognize objects and events and make inferences about their properties (Goldstein, 2015). Categorization as a principle, on the other hand, defines the process by which things are placed into the groups called categories. Categories, in this context, are all possible examples of a particular concept (Goldstein, 2015).

In the Chapter 10 presentation, the principles of visual imagery and mental imagery are expounded. Visual imagery explores “seeing” in the absence of a visual stimulus while mental imagery expounds experiencing sensory impressions in the absence of sensory input.

Explanation of How the Cognitive Psychology Principles Apply to the Eyewitness Case

In the Stahl’s (2009) Eyewitness case, it is clear that malleable nature of memory resulted in wrongful rape conviction of Ronald Cotton after Jennifer Thompson identified him as the culprit in her eyewitness testimony. Even though this sexual crime was committed against her by Bobby Poole who had a striking resemblance with Cotton, Thompson stuck with Cotton as the perpetrator of the heinous act despite being presented with the two of them in court. The flaws in Thompson’s memory are common flaws in the human memory as detailed by the theories discussed above.

In Thompson’s own confession, she had studied the perpetrator’s eye positions, voice, height, and moustache while he was doing the act of crime to have him arrested later. This information and the experience of being raped were stored in her memory through episodic and semantic encoding processes. Additionally, she got more suggestions from Gauldin at the police station. From the explained principles of conceptual knowledge and categorization, it is understood how Thompson was able to categorize and describe the culprit. Also, the principles of visual imagery and mental imagery, which expound on “seeing” in the absence of a visual stimulus and on experiencing sensory impressions in the absence of sensory input respectively, further describe this process.

It can be argued that through encoding, retrieval, maintenance rehearsal, and elaborative rehearsal, she managed to store the information in her long-term memory. Autobiographical memory (AM) and flashbulb memories suggest that significant events and highly emotional events in a person’s life are among the well-remembered memories. However, flashbulb memories have been faulted as having the potential of being inaccurate or lacking in detail. This fault usually arises as a result of the repeated hearing or viewing of an event. Thompson narrates that she intently looked at the picture she described comparing it with the presented persons. She eventually identified Cotton as the perpetrator given that he looked more like the perpetrator, even though the real perpetrator was not there. The event is well explained by the principles of schemas and scripts, which argue that memory can contain information not actually experienced but inferred because it is expected and consistent with the schema (Goldstein, 2015).
The principles of false memories and misleading post-event information further explain that Thompson was wrong in her eyewitness testimony due to the constructive nature of the memory and mistaken identity. False memories suggest that errors emerge as sometimes witnesses’ attention is often narrowed by the specific stimuli or focus on weapons. Additionally, these errors can also arise from suggestions and confirming feedback, all of which Miss Thompson encountered.

What Could Have Been Done

Apparently, the solution to what could have been done to prevent this from happening is also discussed by Stahl (2009). In Stahl’s (2009) opinion, the fact that DNA has exonerated in excess of 230 men in sex-related and murder crimes means that more than 75% of innocent men have been convicted partly because of faulty eyewitness testimonies. At the heart of these faulty testimonies is the fragility of memory given that it does not operate like an audio recorder that records an event and simply plays it back. What could have been done is that the people should have been shown to Thompson in the lineup, one at a time. It would have allowed her to compare each person directly to the image she had in her memory rather than comparing them one to another. Alternatively, an independent person who does not know who the suspect is, not the detective and not the one related to Thompson, should have administered the lineup. Also, the detective should not have been there when Thompson picked out Mr. Cotton.


In conclusion, eyewitness testimony has two distinguishable properties of being unreliable and highly persuasive in court sessions. In Thompson and Cotton’s case, the situation is not made any better by the nature of the crime. Though Thompson confesses to have studied the perpetrator during the process of commission of the crime, she cannot match this information with what she sees to identify the correct victim. The indication is that though in the legal arena, the testimony of witnesses, once admitted by the court, is considered evidence; there is need to test the witnesses’ credibility. It is because instances have arisen where such eyewitness testimonies and accounts have led to misidentifications and wrongful or false convictions. Therefore, as much as one may be identified as having committed a crime, it is in order that tests like DNA test are promptly carried out to avoid implicating an innocent person.

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