Identifying the Culprit For Eyewitnesses

 identifying the Culprit For eyewitnesses, testifying is only the last in a series of efforts to retrieve what they saw from memory. Before witnesses reach the courtroom, they are ques- tioned by police and lawyers, view a lineup or mug shots, and possibly even assist in creating a facial composite or an artist’s sketch of the perpetrator. Yet each of these experiences can increase the risk of error and distortion.

Imagine trying to reconstruct a culprit’s face by selecting a set of eyes, a nose, a mouth, a hairstyle, and so on from vast collections of features and then combining them into a composite of the face. Research shows that this process seldom produces a face that resembles the actual culprit. To further complicate matters, the face construction process itself may confuse wit- nesses, making it more difficult for them later to identify the culprit. In one study, for example, participants were asked to select from six pictures a person’s face they had seen 2 days earlier. Sixty percent accurately identified the target. When they first tried to reconstruct the face using a computerized facial composite pro- gram, however, their identification accuracy dropped to 18%.

An eyewitness’s greatest impact on a case occurs when he or she makes a positive identification from a photographic or live lineup. Once police have made an arrest, they often call on their witnesses to view a lineup that includes the suspect and five to seven other individuals. This procedure may take place within hours or days of a crime or months later. Either way, the lineup often results in tragic cases of mistaken identity. Through the application of eyewitness research findings, this risk can be reduced.

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