How Reliable is the Memory of Eyewitnesses?

Photo Source: Pixabay

Photo Source: Pixabay

Karaline Baldini, Writer

The greatest cause of innocent people being convinced for crimes they did not commit is eyewitness misidentification. Juries tend to judge eyewitness testimony to crimes as more reliable than it truly is. The public holds many outdated misconceptions about the brain and memory. The information experts have discovered about memory needs to be shared with the public to ensure the convictions of the truly guilty parties. 


In a study done by National Geographic, both regular citizens and experts of memory were asked to respond to this statement: “In my opinion, the testimony of one confident eyewitness should be enough to convict a defendant of a crime.” 95% of experts said they strongly disagreed with the statement, and the remaining 5% said they mostly disagreed. Almost 40% of the public either mostly or strongly agreed. The people serving on juries need to be informed about the reliability of memory to make informed and just decisions. 


Eyewitnesses may truly believe the testimony they are giving is accurate, but their memory can be mistaken. There are several psychological explanations as to why our memory can be an inaccurate source. One reason is the imagining effect. Visualizing something and actually experiencing it activates similar areas in the brain, which can lead to the belief that imagined events and details are true. 


Another reason memory can be unreliable is because recalling a memory puts it at risk of being altered. When we retrieve previously stored memories, they are altered before being stored again. The same National Geographic study also asked the participants to respond to this statement: “Once you have experienced an event and formed a memory of it, that memory does not change.” 100% of experts strongly or mostly disagreed whereas almost 50% of the public strongly or mostly agreed.


In the rape case of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, false memory and law enforcement’s outdated identification procedures led to ten years in jail for an innocent man. In July 1984, a man broke into Thompson-Cannino’s apartment and raped her at knife point. She managed to flee her apartment after saying she was going to get a glass of water. After she escaped, the man left, broke into another woman’s apartment, and raped her too. 


At the police station, Thompson-Cannino was shown pictures of six men and asked to make a photo identification of her rapist. She spent several minutes studying the photos before saying, “I think that’s him.” The man she picked was Ronald Cotton.  


A few days later, she was asked to identify the rapist out of a physical lineup. Again, she chose Ronald Cotton. Afterwards, one of the detectives shared with her that she had identified the same man in both the photo and physical lineups. While she was initially unsure if she had correctly identified the man who raped her, this validation from the detective increased her confidence in her memory.


To prevent the contamination of police identifications, the detectives present during the IDs should not be involved in the case. This will reduce bias and ensure classified information is not shared with the witness.


The second woman who was raped that night did not pick Ronald Cotton out of the photo or physical lineup, but this was not shared with the jury. The evidence the prosecution presented against Cotton consisted of a flashlight found in his home which matched the one used by the rapist, and rubber from Cotton’s shoe that matched rubber found at one of the crime scenes. Cotton was sentenced to life plus fifty years.   


In 1995, the Burlington Police Department gave all of their evidence to the defense. The defense tested a semen sample from one of the rapes and found that it did not belong to Ronald Cotton. The results were sent to the State Bureau of Investigation’s DNA database which came back with a match to an inmate named Bobby Poole. The charges against Cotton were cleared and he was released from prison.  


Had the DNA from the rape never been tested, Cotton would have spent the rest of his life in jail based on a false eyewitness identification. The legal system must consider the reliability of memory when there is a lack of physical evidence.