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15 Jurimetrics J. 171 (1974-1975)
Eyewitness Testimony

handle is hein.journals/juraba15 and id is 181 raw text is: EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY*
Robert Buckhoutt
Although such testimony is frequently challenged, it is still widely as-
sumed to be more reliable than other kinds of evidence. Numerous experi-
ments show, however, that it is remarkably subject to error.
The woman in the witness box stares at the defendant, points an accusing
finger and says, loudly and firmly, That's the man! That's him! I could
never forget his face! It is impressive testimony. The only eyewitness
to a murder has identified the murderer. Or has she?
Perhaps she has, but she may be wrong. Eyewitness testimony is
unreliable. Research and courtroom experience provide ample evidence
that an eyewitness to a crime is being asked to be something and do
something that a normal human being was not created to be or do.
Human perception is sloppy and uneven, albeit remarkably effective in
serving our need to create structure out of experience. In an investigation
or in court, however, a witness is often asked to play the role of a kind
of tape recorder on whose tape the events of the crime have left an
impression. The prosecution probes for stored facts and scenes and tries
to establish that the witness's recording equipment was and still is in
perfect running order. The defense cross-examines the witness to show
that there are defects in the recorder and gaps in the tape. Both sides,
and usually the witness too, succumb to the fallacy that everything was
recorded and can be played back later through questioning.
Those of us who have done research in eyewitness identification
reject that fallacy. It reflects a 19th-century view of man as perceiver,
which asserted a parallel between the mechanisms of the physical world
and those of the brain. Human perception is a more complex informa-
tion-processing mechanism. So is memory. The person who sees an
accident or witnesses a crime and is then asked to describe what he saw
*Reprinted with permission from Scientific American, December 1974, Vol. 231, No. 6,
p. 23. Copyright @ 1974 by Scientific American, Inc. All rights reserved.
tRobert Buckhout, Associate Professor, Brooklyn College of The City University of New
York, is associated with the Center for Responsive Psychology, Brooklyn College, Brook-
lyn, New York 11210.


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