How reliable is “eyewitness” testimony?

According to The Innocence Project, when looking at their first 325 DNA exonerations, nearly three-quarters (72%) of the wrongful conviction cases were due to eyewitness misidentification. A scary thought. In the latter part of 2011, the New Jersey Supreme Court joined a growing list of institutions who were calling into question the use of eyewitness identification in criminal trials. The unanimously passed ruling by the New Jersey court noted that this type of evidence suffered from a “troubling lack of reliability” and called for the revision of the tests used to measure eyewitness reliability. The issue was taken up by the United States Supreme Court in November 2011.

The New Jersey court’s decision was based on recent scientific studies and was brought on by the 2004 case of Larry Henderson. Convicted of manslaughter, Henderson’s lawyers later argued that police involved in the investigation exploited the flawed memories of witnesses through suggestibility by influencing identification efforts with subtle suggestions aimed at leading witnesses towards falsely identifying Henderson as the killer. The ruling by the New Jersey court is a recognition of the fact that our memories are not videotaped playbacks of the past. In fact, memory is easily influenced and therefore fallible.

There are many factors that make eyewitness testimony far from fail-safe. Suggestibility which I mentioned previously is one of the most concerning. Identifying faces is already a difficult task. The difficulty increases when the high emotions present during crimes influences what an individual pays attention to. Our emotions narrow our range of attention, perhaps most notably by causing witnesses to crimes focus on any weapons rather than assailant’s faces.

Familiarity with faces can also lead to errors, as already distracted witnesses can sometimes identify someone merely because they are familiar with the individuals face but cannot remember the correct source of their familiarity – also called source monitoring. Being questioned after witnessing a crime can also be problematic because reactivating one’s memory of an event makes it easier to influence and create false memories.

In order to ward off any of these errors, a number of actions have been proposed to help maintain the integrity of eyewitness testimony. Notifying witnesses that they perpetrator may not be in the lineup, using similar looking people in lineups, presenting each individual in a lineup one at a time, making sure that the officer administering the lineup does not know who the suspect is, and lastly, developing effective interview techniques such as the cognitive interview which was created to facilitate memory retrieval. These suggestions are based on psychological research.

Going back to the court’s ruling, in 2012, the US Supreme Court did find in favor of law enforcement agencies when it decided to back eyewitness identification in an 8-1 ruling. Still, Justice Ginsberg again iterated the importance of guarding against suggestibility during eyewitness testimony both by putting in place the safeguards mentioned previously as well as through ensuring proper police conduct.



Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.

Mears, B. (2012, Jan 11). Supreme Court backs eyewitness identification with 8-1 ruling. CNN. Retrieved from

Spoto, M. (2011, March 28). Camden manslaughter case has N.J. Supreme Court questioning reliability of witness identifications. Retrieved from

The Causes of Wrongful Conviction. (n.d.) The Innocence Project. Retrieved from



6 thoughts on “How reliable is “eyewitness” testimony?

  1. abc5543

    Your Post on the reliability of Eye Witness testimony has several interesting examples of how a witness’s testimony can be detrimentally inaccurate. As I read your post, I reflected back on a situation that I encountered earlier this year in which I was asked to identify a possible criminal suspect. I would say that I remember the event like it was yesterday; however, since I’m using mental time travel; (E. Bruce Goldstein, 2014; chapter 6th) which has proven to be fallible, to recollect the events, then I’ll say it’s my belief that I remember it like yesterday.
    In my situation, I was asked to report the events that I had witnessed of a possible criminal suspect, the type of vehicle the suspect drove, and a “headshot” description of the suspect. I did not know at the time of the incident that Elizabeth Loftus and coworkers (1978) had actually done an experiment that established the Misinformation Effect; which is “misleading information presented after a person witnesses an event. The misleading information is referred to as Misleading Postevent Information, or MPI” (E. Bruce Goldstein, 2014; chapter 8, pg. 222). Again, I wasn’t aware of the formal research; however, I knew that I certainly wanted to be as concise and detailed as possible.
    When the event began to occur, I wasn’t 100% sure of what I was encountering at the time; however, I inadvertently used heuristics to expedite my judgment of what I was to believe about the event that was shockingly ensuing. After I judged quickly the event itself, I also reacted quickly by approaching the possible suspect (perhaps no the smartest decision, since I could have been killed if the event would have played out exactly the same as several historical events of the same nature). I got out of my car and approached the suspect in the car that “she” was sitting in on the driver’s side. As I approached, I noticed that her features appeared a little odd; however, I did not want to stereotype her. When I arrived at the suspect, I quickly and abrasively asked a few questions about what I had witnessed. The suspect tensely denied my allegation; however, her cell phone (which was the central factor that made her suspicious) reflected possible evidence to prove my accusations; therefore, as she was holding the phone in view, I focused in on it to get as much information as I possibly could within seconds. Though the phone was a major factor, I avoided “weapon focus”; which is the tendency to focus attention on a “weapon”, resulting in a narrowing of attention that causes a witness to miss relevant information such as the suspect’s face (E. Bruce Goldstein, 2014; chapter 8, pg. 227).
    As the suspect denied my accusations, I noticed something strange in regards to the tone of her voice. It was slightly raspier than to be expected from a woman; therefore, when I heard the voice, I zoned in once more on her facial features, hair, and makeup. Something seemed very odd about her, but again, I didn’t want to stereotype. I quickly studied had her facial features so that they would remain vivid in my mind. I knew that attempting to retain too much information, would certainly cause MPI for me, so with my cell phone, I discretely took a picture of her car, license plates, and anything else I could think to be of importance
    I was contacted to give an account of the possible criminal events about 30 minutes later; therefore, there wasn’t much time to be influenced by factors that tend to cause errors while recalling events. I was able to describe the possible suspects face, voice, hair, and makeup. I also had pictures of viable information, and my account of the events was still fresh in my mind. I was given a cognitive interview which allowed me to communicate with minimum interruption. This allowed me to mentally and emotionally return to the scene to recreate the events (E. Bruce Goldstein, 2014; chapter 8, pg. 232). The investigator refrained from possibly creating errors due to suggestion; which means that he did not suggest any possible information to me as I delivered my eyewitness testimony (E. Bruce Goldstein, 2014; chapter 8, pg. 228). In the end, the investigator ask how assured I was that I could identify the suspect if shown a picture. I was given one picture, and the identity matched about 98% of what I described. The possible suspect had a “hit” on HIM, the identity matched someone that was already being traced, and his information was forwarded to the FBI. I witness testimony can be reliable depending on the variables.

  2. Xueqi Guo

    Eyewitnesses in a lineup is not very trustful indeed. According to what we learned in lesson 9, eyewitnesses in a lineup will easily pick a person who most closely resembles the suspect, even though the true suspect is not in the lineup at all (Pennsylvania State University, 2015, pp10). Besides, because memories are heavily influenced by context (we learned in lesson 8 about how people would recall more vocabularies if they encoded and recall the words in the same context such as underwater, according to Godden and Baddeley’s experiment), eyewitnesses identify a suspect in a lineup may come to a false conclusions based on feelings or priorities (Szalavitz , 2012). The eyewitness could also pick suspects based on some cues they see such as the person carries a weapon, rather than pick out suspect simply from memory.
    According to Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification has a factor in 72% of convictions, which later has been overturned by DNA testing (Sanburn, 2014). This data conforms to what you found about eyewitness misidentification. However, though police lineup is not trustful and easily get innocent people into jail, there could be ways to prevent or reduce misidentifictaion.
    Gary Wells, an professor in Iowa State University and a leading researcher on lineup, recommend to use sequential lineups (photos shown one by one, one at a time) instead of simultaneous lineups (photos shown together). This could slow down the eyewitness’s speed to pick the suspect and gives them harder task to IDing the suspect.
    Therefore, though lineup is not very trustful due to concerns including false memory, leading cues (hold weapon or not), misidentification of face (pick person who looks like the suspect in memory), etc., there are ways to help reduce misidentification. After all, lineup is still a way to identify crimes. As long as we can improve the degree of accuracy and reduce the probability of misidentification, it could help people find criminals.


    Sanburn, J. (2014). Behind the Messy Science of Police Lineups. TIME. Retrieved from

    Szalavitz, M. (2012). How to Improve Police Lineups and ID the Right Culprit. TIME. Retrieved from

    The Pennsylvania State University. (2015). Eyewitness Memory. Lesson 9: Everyday Memory and Memory Errors. pp10. Retrieved from

  3. hsm5050

    Like the lab we just completed, it is apparent that we are often more sure of what we think to be true than what is actually true. This falls into the category of heuristics, which can be useful in everyday reasoning, categorizing, and making decisions quickly. The speed does not always come with accuracy, however. Our attention and memory are very powerful and fragile at the same time; sometimes, we tend to “auto-fill” in certain instances with wrongful information. This is our brain trying to piece together a puzzle that actually has a piece missing, but we still automatically try to solve it anyway; in some cases, such as wrongful convictions, it’s hard to say whether the witness truly believed in what they thought they saw, or if there was a hidden wrongful motivation behind the incrimination. Unfortunately, this is a human flaw; we are not always able to remember things as they actually happened, or see things as they actually were.

  4. Amber Heiber

    Very interesting post about credibility and validity of eyewitness testimonies. I have done a similar post about suggestibility in children, specifically having to do with legal matters. As mentioned in the textbook on page 228-229, the wording, sequence, and also suggestibility used while questioning a potential eyewitness could greatly influence the outcome, whether false or not. I believe children are even more susceptible to suggestibility, but when confronted with and traumatized by unfortunate events, adults can be just as susceptible to suggestibility when they are not cognitively or physically competent.

  5. Felicia Maria Tavarez Puntiel

    Have you ever visited a prison, or county jail? I have. I go inside those walls 5 to 6 times a week. I am a State Corrections Officer. I hear of wrongful convictions on an everyday basis. Some use it to give an excuse as to why they are in prison. “I did not do it” I took the bid for someone”. What about the ones that really did not do it? Everyday my own eyes see how an eyewitness can affect a person’s live forever.
    Dennis Fritz is amounts the few exonerated after a wrongful conviction. Dennis was accused of a murder of a dinner waitress because he and a friend were regulars at the dinner. What led to the wrongful conviction were false confessions or admissions by “eye witness’, informants, and invalidated and improper forensic science. Also a professional analyst testified incorrectly.
    How many Dennis Fritz are there in the prison system? How would you feel if you or a loved one was charged and wrongfully convicted, because of incompetents professionals, and ”snitches” , eyewitnesses who didn’t really see anything looking for a way out of their own crimes or just someone looking for a easy conviction?. I see the faces of those wrongfully convicted every day. Only they know if they did the crime or not. Our justice system needs to do a better job, and not take the easy way out.

    11 Years in Prison: Innocent, Retrieved on 12/03/2015 from

  6. Makeba Alise Fitzgerald

    Eyewitness testimony is the testimony by an eyewitness to a crime about what he or she saw during the commission of a crime. This process generally involves a person giving a statement and selecting a perpetrator from a police lineup or sketch or other methods. Once a perpetrator is selected and a statement is given then the steps of formal charges and court process begins. The court process is a very slow one and can take years before a person is taken to trial.
    Eyewitness testimony plays a significant role in the apprehension and conviction of a criminal. However, it has also been known to convict the innocent. This type of mistake can happen because the person who is giving the testimony may have suffered a rush of emotions during the commission of the crime and may have mistaken someone whom they had encountered earlier that day as the perpetrator because this was the last face that they remembered. Also people are wrongfully convicted due to misguided questions during the time if questioning. These type of questions could be did you see the red car at the scene, did you seen the gun, did the gunman get into the red car etc. Questions like this can be misleading as the eyewitness may have never seen the red car nor seen the gunman get into a red car. When so much time has passed between the questioning about the crime and the actual testimony given a person may change their story due to other information being put into their mind which can lead to false testimony.
    Here is an example that will help you to understand why I say that people work on emotions a group of children were involved in a school bus accident and when they notified the parents to tell them they first reported that it was a minor fender bender. Then there was another call that said a little girl was trapped inside of the school bus and then there was a third call that said that the little girl was trapped underneath the bus and that the little girl was dead. Can you imagine what this parent was feeling on the other end of this phone call? Well let me help you out with these eye witnesses. I was the parent on the other end of the call and yes it was a school bus accident involving a tractor trailer and yes my child was trapped underneath the school bus and was life-lite by helicopter in Maryland and I was in Pennsylvania. The descriptions that were given about the driver was incorrect except his race and approx. age. so I thank god for cameras.
    In conclusion I think that eyewitness testimony can be helpful but it can also be wrong depending on the situation. When people are dealing with high emotions it tends to change what they may have actually seen. Also when people are told that certain things happened that actually never took place and then they are later questioned and state the things that they were told and believe that they actually witnessed this can hurt a person who may actually be innocent.

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