Eyewitness Testimony Reliable?

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Declan Geraghty
11/21/11
Perception Cognition
The Manipulative Mind of Humans

Ron Cotton, a 22 year old man, sat in his cold, dark, 6 by 8 cell with his face engulfed in his thin pillow as he sobbed and wished for the company of his family and friends. Eight days earlier Ron Cotton was living his everyday life, working, and going to school until somehow Cotton found himself in a police identification lineup for the rape of Jennifer Thompson, a 22-year old college student. On the night of July 28th, 1984, a large male broke into Jennifer’s house pinned her down and began raping her. Remarkably, Jennifer’s first instinct was to observe specific characteristics about the individual in order to identify the man if she made it out alive. Cunningly, Jennifer escaped the grips of the rapist, determined to punish the man who raped her she went straight to the police and conducted a composite sketch. Three days later the police presented Jennifer with a facial composite lineup of possible suspects, and within five minutes Jennifer chose a picture of Ron Cotton with one hundred percent confidence. The eyewitness identification proved to be sufficient enough to convince the jury of Cotton’s guilt and sentence him to life in prison. After 11 years of rotting in his cell Ron Cotton was exonerated with the help of DNA evidence. The numbers of exonerations are on the rise and this poses the question whether eyewitness testimony is truly reliable? Research in cognitive psychology exposes major flaws in retrieval of long-term memory and studies exhibit how easily malleable our memories become when manipulated. The study of the human mind is a never-ending source for exploration for psychologists, and although there have been many ground breaking discoveries in our understanding of the human mind it is still a very mysterious and poorly understood subject. In relation to false memories and eyewitness testimony it is crucial to understand how long-term memory works. In order to properly grasp how long-term memory operates psychologists divide the brain’s functions into subgroups. The broadest subgroups of long-term memory are the implicit and explicit memory groups. Implicit memory is expressed unconsciously through performance as opposed to conscious recall. Explicit memory differs from implicit memory primarily because it is the conscious recall of knowledge or events. Explicit memory is divided into semantic and episodic subclasses. Semantic memory deals with storage and retrieval of information, for example, multiplication tables or naming state capitals. Episodic memory is storage and recall of autobiographical events, for example, what a person had for breakfast. Episodic and semantic work together in many instances but there is sufficient evidence that they work as separate entities. It is a rare instance but DeRenzi (1987) discovered an Italian female who provided evidence for this separate entity theory. The Italian woman could not go grocery shopping because she lacked the semantic ability to remember food words but amazingly could rattle off past episodic memories from months and even years prior. Her episodic memory was fully intact but she exhibited deficits in semantic memory. Although it is evident that semantic memory plays a role in forming memories, the episodic subset of LTM is more relative for examination of eyewitness testimony. Eyewitness testimony relies on retrieval of long-term memories; unfortunately, the retrieval process for LTM is a system that is very susceptible to error. Schemas and associations are factors that cause people to unknowingly produce false memories and fabrications. The human memory system is comparable to giant library in which all the information is available; the problem presents itself in locating and retrieving the proper material from the vast archives of the library or in this case the human mind. In order to recover memories rapidly, our brain automatically forms retrieval paths...
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