Can we Trust an “Eyewitness”?

Yes sir, the light was green, I am positive…or was it yellow….maybe it just turned yellow….ok, now I am not sure…

 The exciting field of criminal justice is all about dealing with people; whether in the course of an investigation, arrest, court proceeding, or corrections setting.  One of the most frustrating aspects of this occupation is attempting to gather facts in the course of ones duties. 

I cannot recall how many times I have performed interviews from seemingly reliable individuals, only to find later that their factual account of an incident was incorrect? Sometimes we are lucky and find those “ideal” witnesses, who seemed to have a clear, unobstructed view of the event, and appear to be completely unbiased, yet when interviewed, they falsely recount even the most simplest of facts.

One such investigation comes to mind that stemmed my interest in this topic area of research. I was performing a field investigation of a possible “jump in” in the claimant’s vehicle.

The claimant was receiving aggressive medical treatment, yet my insured and the police report did not place him in the claimant’s car. I located two eyewitnesses to the event who were standing on the exact corner of this intersection accident; both with a clear view of the loss and of course the claimant’s car. These were ideal witnesses, both were college educated, presented themselves well, and were unbiased, yet when I interviewed them, they could not even provide the correct color of my insured’s car, which was a distinctive yellow hue.

Some of the seemingly “simple” questions appeared inaccurate- weather, clothing etc…Immediately I thought of how unreliable these reliable witnesses were and wondered why they could not provide a clear account of the simple facts of loss. The reliability of eyewitness testimony is not a new topic of research; it has been explored for more than a hundred years by psychologists and legal experts. Let’s take a brief look at the historical development of eyewitness reliability to establish a foundation for our topic.

In his seminal book, “On the Witness Stand” (1908) Hugo Mu¨nsterberg questioned the reliability of witness testimony. He is considered one of the early pioneers of research and development in this topic area of law and psychology. His early research has shown itself to be applicable to many contemporary situations involving testimony. Mu¨nsterberg performed a significant study which supported his theory of witness unreliability. In the study he had a sample group of children and adults view pictures of a farmer’s room, immediately afterward they were asked a mixture of leading and objective questions. These studies revealed that the adult sample was highly misled by leading questions, but the children were not. The younger group seemed to be less resistant to suggestion than adults.

Contemporary researchers such as Roberts & Schneider (2000) have also supported these findings. Can we infer from these studies that the younger witnesses provide more accurate testimony? The research suggests that we can. A similar study by Valentine, Pickering, and Darling (2003) studied the identification accuracy of 640 witnesses from 314 lineups conducted in London. The researchers categorized the age of the witnesses and correlated their findings to accuracy. They found overwhelmingly, that the age of the witness had a significant effect on identification accuracy, with a rate of 48% accuracy in the under 20-year old group as compared to 28% in the 40-plus group. How about the testimony of the claimant or insured, we would think that someone directly involved in the event would be able to provide a clear recount of the occurrence. However, studies have proven otherwise.

A significant study performed by Patricia Tollestrup, John Turtle, and John Yille (1994) focused on how individuals acquire and retain information from an occurrence. They studied specific cases where a suspect confessed to a crime and also involved eyewitness victims and bystanders. The study revealed that bystanders had a more accurate memory of the crime scene than the victims involved. Victim accuracy rate was 40% lower than that of the bystanders. The most significant aspect of the study surrounded the findings that both the bystanders and the victim eyewitnesses chose the right criminal only 48% of the time in a lineup.

This study illustrates that eyewitness testimony is very weak and unreliable. It also shows that if the eyewitness was directly involved in the crime, chances are their testimony is even weaker because of many factors that bias their memory. In the early 1990’s the development and use of DNA evidence in criminal cases was a significant “eye opener” in eyewitness reliability. The revisiting of cases across the world revealed the many criminals that were initially convicted by eyewitnesses were exonerated by DNA evidence. This caused new found interest in reliability.

Tests by psychologists using mock crime scenes has revealed that eyewitnesses are incorrect approximately half (50%) of the time. In 1996, the Department of Justice assembled a panel of leading psychologists to address this reliability issue and develop strategies to assist with gathering more reliable information. They concluded that the interview format can often times have an affect on the outcome of the testimony. That is, they recommended asking very open-ended questions, so as to extract a more unbiased account of events. They also recognized that the less time that elapses between the interview and the occurrence can also have affect on accuracy. So what can we conclude from this research. Many of the studies overwhelmingly revealed that eye witness testimony is highly unreliable; approximately 50% of the time their testimony is inaccurate.

The message gleaned from this article should not be to discount all eyewitness testimony, instead to use the testimony as part of your overall investigative strategy. Actually sir…now that I have thought about it I am sure the light was yellow…I think…


About the Author: J. Michael Skiba, MBA, is a full time special investigations unit manager for a large financial company where he specializes in financial fraud investigations.  In addition, he has been an adjunct instructor at the campus and online level for approximately ten years.  He is a regular presenter and publisher of fraud related topics, and is currently pursuing his PhD in criminal justice.  He is heavily involved with industry associations and holds several executive board seats, including acting President of the New York State Association of Special Investigative Units.