Distance makes a difference in eyewitness identification

University of Adelaide researchers are studying the reliability of eyewitness identification testimony in criminal cases in the hopes of improving evidence from witnesses and leading to fairer trials.

Previous studies from the United States show that 70% of people wrongfully convicted of a crime had been convicted on the basis of testimony, which is often unreliable and can be distorted by a range of factors, such as subtle cues from police.

Researchers from the University of Adelaide's School of Psychology are focusing their efforts on the difference between objective and subjective testimony. They're finding that despite many eyewitnesses having poor subjective memories, they often have a good for objective details, such as distance.

" of distance – such as how far an eyewitness was standing from the crime being committed – and the time taken to witness the crime are less prone to distortion than other details," says the leader of the project, Dr Carolyn Semmler, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology.

"Unlike subjective judgments, correct answers exist for objective judgments. Our research aims to explain why objective judgments seem to be relatively immune to the same kinds of clouded that affect other details in eyewitness testimony."

Psychology PhD student Adella Bhaskara has been studying 700 people's responses to distance estimates in a mock crime scenario.

"Our participants are exposed to a 'mock' criminal and are asked to provide details of what they saw, both immediately afterwards and also again after a delay of one week. Distance estimates are the strongest part of their ," Ms Bhaskara says.

"This is effectively a laboratory experiment, but it is a step closer to a real-world evironment, which makes it more legally relevant. It's also one of the few times anyone has used an actual 'target' to study eyewitnesses' distance estimates, so we believe it will provide some insights that can be translated to real-world situations," she says.

Dr Semmler says: "By providing a theoretical understanding of the processes involved in the reliability of evidence from witnesses, we aim to suggest practical reforms that will help to optimise that evidence.

"Our insights should be equally useful for the prosecution as well as defence.

"Ultimately, we hope that what we learn will help to reduce the rate of wrongful convictions, paticularly where the weighting of evidence is on eyewitness testimony."

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Older adults may be unreliable eyewitnesses, study shows

Feb 21, 2007

A University of Virginia study suggests that older adults are not only more inclined than younger adults to make errors in recollecting details that have been suggested to them, but are also more likely than younger people ...

Did I see what I think I saw?

Jan 28, 2009

Eyewitness testimony is a crucial part of many criminal trials even though research increasingly suggests that it may not be as accurate as we (and many lawyers) would like it to be. For example, if you witness a man in a ...

Understanding the science of eyewitness identifications

Jul 06, 2011

Mistaken eyewitness identification is a primary cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. This link between false identifications and false convictions has spurred a reform movement to change the way that police ...

Recommended for you

Intervention program helps prevent high-school dropouts

Oct 24, 2014

New research findings from a team of prevention scientists at Arizona State University demonstrates that a family-focused intervention program for middle-school Mexican American children leads to fewer drop-out rates and ...

Bilingualism over the lifespan

Oct 24, 2014

It's a scene that plays out every day in Montreal. On the bus, in schools, in the office and at home, conversations weave seamlessly back and forth between French and English, or one of the many other languages represented ...

User comments