Eyewitness testimony is the legal term referring to an account given by an individual of an event they have witnessed. This may involve the individual testifying against a perpetrator by providing a detailed account of what they have seen and heard regarding the crime in question. Testifying often involves identification of perpetrators and scene of crime. Often the eyewitness testimony is the only evidence against the perpetrator; the Devlin committee (1976) found that in 74% of cases in 1973 in which eyewitness testimony was the only evidence resulted in conviction, therefore implying jury's pay significant attention to eyewitness accounts as they are perceived as reliable sources. Despite this, research has indicated several psychological variables which may adversely affect eyewitness testimony, such as memory, age and leading questions.
Over the years, the appearance of minors in courts has risen; the testimony of minors is almost always required in sexual abuse cases, where often the child is not only the victim but the only witness to the crime itself. As there is often little or no physical evidence of the sexual abuse, intervention is dependent upon the child's disclosure of the abuse. If the child is courageous enough to disclose an account of their victimization it presents professionals from all discipline with a range of problems, one being to establish fact from fiction. Therefore the credibility of the account plays a dominant factor in the treatment of the abuse (Perry and Wightman, 1991). If the child's account is not deemed credible it may lead to misjudgments, both a miscarriage of justice and leave the child vulnerable to further abuse.
Credibility has two key components competence and trustworthiness (Goodman et al (1989) cited in Bottoms & Goodman (1994). The testimony of child witness is extremely important in the role of prosecution, therefore the testimony must be credible in order to achieve the maximum outcome in terms of punishment.
Memories are the reconstruction of past events determined by current beliefs and feelings, therefore are subjective. Loftus & Ketcham (1991) said people can believe things have happened when in reality they have not occurred; therefore it can be assumed not all memories recalled are accurate. Memories can change over time the more a memory is recalled the more likely it is to change. People recall memories in the way they would like to remember certain aspects of life. As a result memories can be manipulated, to such an extent that individuals can recall and recognize events which may have not actually occurred.
Memory and recall was tested in both children and adults by Foley& Johnson (1985) (cited in Smith, Cowie & Blade 2002). They conducted a study in which participants were asked to either physically carry out actions such as waving or imagine them, the results indicated that adults were more accurate in recall than children as they could recall which action they had performed, where as the six year olds believed they had physically performed an action when they had actually imagined it, implying that children are easily confused and mislead by leading questions about particular events.
Children's memories are more easy to manipulate than adults, Ceci & Bruck (1993) said children find it fairly difficult to distinguish fact from fantasy, as they are vulnerable and naïve therefore less reliable and credible than adults. They found young children's memories of events were more likely to be affected by false information provided after an event had occurred. It was believed the stronger the child's memory was the more resistant it was to suggestibility than, weaker memories. Weaker memories were found to be more vulnerable to suggestibility, allowing intrusion from external sources due to being weakly integrated. Memories which had deteriorated into weaker memories were also susceptible to suggestibility, as the suggested information is more likely to be retrieved than the deteriorated information. This is in line with Loftus & Loftus (1980) who believed misinformation provided changes to the original memory, making it difficult to retrieve.
Testifying for children can be an overwhelming experience, as their testimonies are repeatedly questioned by several interviewers an intimidating process in which the child may feel obliged to agree to any suggestions put forward, a classic case of putting words in to ones mouth. Studies have shown that children can be easily misled by adults - as far as recalling events which have never occurred.
Varendonck (1911) was one of the first psychologists to investigate child suggestibility. He asked children to describe a person who had approached them in the school playground, the person was fictional. He found children's memories were easily manipulated as the majority, seventeen out of twenty-two children recalled encountering the fictional person. Not only could the children recall an encounter with the fictional person some children even named and described what the person looked like. Varendonck concluded from the findings that children were not reliable as witnesses as their suggestibility was unlimited.
Rudy & Goodman (1991) conducted a study to investigate child suggestibility in eyewitness accounts of events. Thirty six, seven year old children were divided into two groups, observers and participants. Two children, one observer and one participant were introduced to a strange man. The strange man asked the observer child to watch carefully whilst he played with the participant child for ten minutes after which he thanked the children and left. Almost two weeks later the children were interviewed separately about the events that occurred, during the interview three recall, thirty-three specific, twenty-three misleading and one leading question were asked. Researchers found the observer child was more suggestible than participant children and younger compared to older children were more suggestible about the events that occurred on the day in question.
Binet (1900) said that children's wrong answers could be explained by the gaps in their memory, which they attempted to fill in order to please the interviewer. He found children were more likely to confirm adult's interpretation of events and replace their original memory with the false memory. Binet attributed child suggestibility to social factors such as the tendency to please adults rather than errors in memory.
Ceci & Bruck (1993) said children are more susceptible to suggestion when they are young as they feel more intimidated by the adult interviewer, leading the child to conform to the adult's perception of the event in question. A child is more likely to succumb to suggestion when they are interviewed for long periods of time in which misleading questions are predominantly used confusing the child into thinking what they believe is wrong and what is being suggested is correct. Furthermore suggestion exerted by parents or carers- to whom the child has an emotional tie too may result in the child to give in to suggestion as they are eager to please.
Ceci, Ross & Toglia (1987) conducted a study in which preschoolers were told picture stories, later on additional information about the story was given by a 7 year old boy or an adult. They found those who received additional information from the 7 year old boy were less easily mislead than those who received information from the adult. It was concluded that children perceive adults to be credible and competent, therefore consider any information given by the adult to be correct, resulting in the child conforming to the adults suggestions. This phenomenon is likely to occur in the interviewing process. Similarly Clarke-Stewart et al (1989) conducted a study in which children were questioned by two adults interviewers who provided false information about the event; the two accounts were significantly different to one another. It was found the child changed their own version of the event to resemble the adult's version.
Lipmann (1911) believed there was no difference between a child and adults memory, He believed children remembered things differently as they paid particular attention to little details which adults may be ignorant to. He also believed children who perceived adult interviewers as authoritative were more likely to confirm any suggestive questions asked in a attempt to make up for poor recall.
Gulotta (2002) said suggestive questions not only provoke memories, they influence answers by persuading an individual to confirm the question. However not all interviewees are susceptible to suggestion. Gulotta found witnesses were more likely to succumb to suggestive questions when they were unsure about their memories of the event in question. This often results in the interviewee allowing themselves to be misled by the interviewer, a classic case of putting words in to ones mouth, rather than admitting their poor recall.
Repeated interviewing can have both negative and positive effects on the reliability of testimony, it can enhance memory recall by helping the interviewee recall information which may have been forgotten but it can also lead children to think their first testimony was not correct, resulting in the child altering the first testimony in order to please the interviewer. (Gulotta, 1997)
Therefore it can be concluded that children store adult provided information in memory, and often substitute it for their original memory recall when they cannot remember specific details. Showing their minds can be manipulated by suggestive questions which can interfere with accurate memory recall of past events.