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Accuracy of eyewitness descriptions

explanation or excuse for the disturbance. As noted
above, the reasonableness of such explanation or
excuse should be determined, under the law, from
the viewpoint of a person in the defendant’s situa-
tion, under the circumstances as he or she believed
them to be. It is clear, however, that having killed
while in the throes of an extreme emotional distur-
bance does not necessarily merit the EED defense. If
the trier of fact determines that the defendant’s
extreme emotions—for example, a defendant’s
extreme rage—were not reasonable under the cir-
cumstances, then the EED defense should be, and
probably will be, denied.
Expert testimony supporting an EED defense is not
required to maintain the defense. However, mental
health professionals may and do testify as experts in
EED cases to help the trier of fact determine the pre-
cise nature of the defendant’s claimed EED at the time
of the crime(s) charged. It is questionable, however,
whether expert witnesses should address the issue of
whether a defendant’s EED was reasonable. Arguably,
at least, whether a defendant’s extreme emotional
reaction was reasonable under the circumstances is
not an issue regarding which mental health profes-
sionals have any special expertise and should best be
left to the trier of fact.
In evaluating a defendant’s emotional state at the
time of a crime, mental health professionals should
conduct the evaluation in the same manner as other
types of “mental state at the time of the offense” eval-
uations. Subjective information gathered from the
defendant and more objective, third-party sources
should be considered. The clinician should attempt to
identify the emotions that the defendant was experi-
encing at the time and whether the emotions were
indeed intense. The evaluator also should assess which
personality factors and/or mental conditions may have
contributed to the defendant’s supposedly aroused
feelings and how the situation(s) which the defendant
found himself or herself in may have elicited, or con-
tributed to, his or her emotionally aroused state (if any)
at the time of the charged criminal act.
Thomas R. Litwack and Stuart M. Kirschner
See also Criminal Responsibility, Assessment of; Criminal
Responsibility, Defenses and Standards; Expert
Psychological Testimony; Forensic Assessment;
Homicide, Psychology of; Insanity Defense Reform Act
(IDRA); Mental Health Law; M’Naghten Standard; Plea
Further Readings
Baze v. Parker, 371 F.3d 310 (6th Cir. 2004).
Hall, H., Mee, C., & Bresciani, P. (2001). Extreme mental or
emotional disturbance (EMED). Hawaii Law Review, 23,
Kirschner, S. M., & Galperin, G. J. (2002). The defense of
extreme emotional disturbance in New York County: Pleas
and outcomes. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 20,
Kirschner, S. M., Litwack, T. R., & Galperin, G. J. (2004).
The defense of extreme emotional disturbance: A
qualitative analysis of cases in New York County.
Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 10, 102–132.
People v. Cassasa, 49 N.Y.2d 668, cert. denied, 449
U.S. 842 (1980).
People v. Lyttle, 408 N.Y.S.2d 578 (1976).
People v. Patterson, 39 N.Y.2d 288 (1976), aff’d, 432
U.S. 197 (1977).
People v. Roche, 98 N.Y.2d 70 (2002).
Police investigators will frequently request that a wit-
ness to a crime provide a verbal description of the
alleged perpetrator. Such descriptions provide critical
information that the police use throughout an investi-
gation, from the identification of possible suspects in
the vicinity of the crime, to the selection of pho-
tographs for mug books or lineup identification
arrays, to the construction of sketches or composites
that may be distributed to the general public. Although
descriptions of persons are often accurate, they unfor-
tunately also tend to lack sufficient detail to single out
an individual suspect.
Quantity Versus Quality
of Person Descriptions
Numerous archival studies have examined the quan-
tity and quality of person descriptions provided in real
cases. On average, witnesses tend to provide between
7 and 10 descriptors, and these descriptors tend to be
quite consistent (or congruent) with the defendant
who is subsequently identified. Unfortunately, the
vast majority of descriptors provided by witnesses are
general, including characteristics such as gender, race,
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age, height, weight, build, and complexion. Aspects of
the clothing worn by the perpetrator are also fre-
quently mentioned, but such features provide only a
brief opportunity for use in identifying a suspect in the
immediate aftermath of a crime. More specific facial
features (such as eye color, hair color or style, and
face shape) are rarely mentioned by witnesses, and
those that are included tend to focus on the upper por-
tions of the face. Taken together, witnesses appear to
provide an accurate general impression of the perpe-
trator but often fail to include more specific facial
details. Laboratory studies of witness descriptions
tend to concur with studies of real witnesses, indicat-
ing that although witnesses generally provide accurate
descriptions, they rarely include descriptors that
might be useful for individuating a target face.
Factors That Influence
Description Accuracy
Research suggests that a variety of cognitive and
social psychological factors can influence the accu-
racy of a witness’s description. First, encoding-based
factors are those that occur around the time of the crit-
ical event when the witness interacts with or views the
perpetrator. For example, low levels of illumination,
greater distance between the witness and the perpetra-
tor, a brief amount of time for viewing the perpetrator,
the experience of stress or anxiety on the part of the
witness (sometimes based on the presence of a
weapon), and a witness under the influence of alcohol
or drugs have all been shown to reduce the accuracy
and completeness of person descriptions. Second, a
subset of factors may occur between the time of
encoding and retrieval of the description (i.e., during
the retention interval) to influence the accuracy of a
witness’s description. For example, longer delays
between encoding and retrieval have been shown to
significantly reduce the quality of descriptions pro-
vided by witnesses, and exposure to “misinformation”
(as described later in this entry) has been demon-
strated to significantly impair a witness’s memory and
thereby his or her person description. Finally, certain
characteristics of the witness can influence the quality
of his or her person description. In particular, adults
tend to provide more detailed descriptions than do
children, though few differences in the accuracy of
person descriptions have been noted between these
two populations. Similarly, young adults are superior
at recalling person descriptions when compared with
middle-aged and elderly adults. Interestingly, unlike
the cross-race effect in face identification, few differ-
ences in accuracy have been noted when individuals
attempt to describe faces of another, less familiar race
or ethnicity.
Methods for Obtaining
Person Descriptions
Interviewing techniques such as feature checklists,
cued recall, and free-recall methods are well-
established practices of investigators for eliciting
person descriptions from eyewitnesses. Regardless
of which technique is used, however, acquiring a
complete yet accurate description has proven to be
very difficult. Probably, the most common method
for obtaining person descriptions is simply to ask the
witness to freely describe what they remember about
the perpetrator. While this free-recall technique reg-
ularly leads to highly accurate descriptions, critical
details of distinguishing characteristics are often
omitted from recall. Consequently, it is common
practice for investigators to ask more direct, follow-
up questions about specific features (e.g., “Do you
remember if the man had facial hair?”) or to attempt
to confirm the identity of a suspect that they have
identified (e.g., “Did the man have short black hair
and blue eyes?”). Studies suggest that such leading
questions can be very dangerous in that they can
“misinform” a witness’s original memory for the
perpetrator and subsequently impair his or her abil-
ity to both provide an accurate description and iden-
tify the perpetrator. Research on feature checklist
techniques similarly suggest that providing wit-
nesses with numerous descriptors regarding a face
can create confusion in memory and lead them to
report the presence of features that they are actually
unsure of. Finally, witnesses to a crime are often
asked to describe the perpetrator many times over the
course of an investigation. Research suggests that
this process of repeated retrieval can have both pos-
itive and negative effects. On the positive side,
repeatedly recalling information has been shown to
lead to increases in recalled information and to offer
some “protection” to the memory trace. Unfortunately,
erroneous details generated during early retrieval
episodes are also repeatedly recalled over time with
increased confidence.
Of the attempts to develop an interviewing tech-
nique to maximize description completeness without
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sacrificing accuracy, the Cognitive Interview is perhaps
the most well known. It has been shown to reliably
improve the completeness of person descriptions in
comparison with other “standard,” free-recall tech-
niques. Unfortunately, some studies have suggested
that the Cognitive Interview results in a slight cost in
description accuracy in the form of increased errors.
This has led some researchers to suggest that warning
witnesses to be cautious in providing person descriptors
may ultimately produce the greatest accuracy and
simultaneously protect the witness’s memory from the
confabulation of details.
The Description-Identification
It seems intuitive that an eyewitness who is capable
of providing an accurate verbal description of a per-
petrator would also be able to subsequently identify
the perpetrator with greater accuracy; however, this
seemingly obvious relationship between description
and identification accuracy has not been demon-
strated consistently in the research literature. For
example, in what is known as the verbal overshad-
owing effect, researchers have demonstrated that ask-
ing participants to provide a verbal description of a
face can actually impair their ability to subsequently
identify that face from an array of similar pho-
tographs. In contrast, other studies have demon-
strated that recognition of faces can be facilitated (or
enhanced) by asking participants to provide a verbal
description prior to test. A small body of literature
has also assessed the specific relationship between
verbal description and identification ability in mem-
ory for faces using a variety of measures of descrip-
tion quality, including indices of accuracy (the
proportion of correct details reported), completeness
(the total number of features reported), the frequency
of correct and incorrect details that are reported, and
the degree of congruence between the description
provided and the face that is subsequently identified.
Overall, there appears to be a small but reliable cor-
relation between description accuracy and identifica-
tion accuracy, and this effect appears to be particularly
accounted for by the frequency of incorrect details
that are generated in a description. Given the small size
of the relationship between description and identifi-
cation of faces, it appears possible that both memory
tasks rely on a common underlying mental represen-
tation, yet also function on the basis of independent
processing orientations (i.e., featural vs. holistic pro-
cessing, respectively).
Kyle J. Susa and Christian A. Meissner
See also Children’s Testimony; Cognitive Interview;
Cross-Race Effect in Eyewitness Identification; Elderly
Eyewitnesses; Exposure Time and Eyewitness Memory;
Eyewitness Memory; Facial Composites; False Memories;
Neil v. Biggers Criteria for Evaluating Eyewitness
Identification; Postevent Information and Eyewitness
Memory; Repeated Recall; Stress and Eyewitness
Memory; Verbal Overshadowing and Eyewitness
Identification; Weapon Focus
Further Readings
Meissner, C. A., & Brigham, J. C. (2001). A meta-analysis of
the verbal overshadowing effect in face identification.
Applied Cognitive Psychology, 15, 603–616.
Meissner, C. A., Sporer, S. L., & Schooler, J. W. (2006).
Person descriptions as eyewitness evidence. In
R. Lindsay, D. Ross, J. Read, & M. Toglia (Eds.),
Handbook of eyewitness psychology: Memory for people.
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Sporer, S. L. (1996). Describing others: Psychological issues.
In S. L. Sporer, R. S. Malpass, & G. Koehnken (Eds.),
Psychological issues in eyewitness identification
(pp. 53–86). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
People who wear a disguise are attempting to conceal
their appearance or change how they look. Culprits may
wear any of a number of possible disguises for the com-
mission of a crime. For example, a bank robber may
wear a ski mask, or dark sunglasses and a knit cap.
Changes in facial characteristics may result not only
from a deliberate attempt to change one’s physical
appearance while committing a crime but also because,
with the passage of time, a culprit naturally ages and
thus may look different from when the crime took
place. Research has examined the influence of several
disguises and appearance alterations such as hairstyle
and facial hair changes, removal or addition of eye-
glasses, and the wearing of a cap. Overall, disguise and
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... Descriptions of the perpetrator are important because they can help police narrow down the suspect pool. Susa and Meissner (2008) report that, on average, eyewitnesses tend to recall between 7 and 10 descriptors. Few studies have examined how older adult eyewitnesses fare in comparison to younger adults when asked to report the details of the perpetrator or the event. ...
... Similar to previous research, younger adults in the current study reported significantly more person descriptors than older adults. Moreover, older adults in the current study reported an average of three descriptors, which is lower than what is typically observed (Susa & Meissner, 2008). The most common descriptors older adults reported were clothing descriptors; however, clothing descriptors are not particularly helpful to police because clothing changes. ...
... The most common descriptors older adults reported were clothing descriptors; however, clothing descriptors are not particularly helpful to police because clothing changes. Furthermore, as Susa and Meissner (2008) point out, clothing is typically only helpful for a brief opportunity in helping to identify the perpetrator -i.e., in the immediate aftermath of a crime. Interior facial features are the least reported descriptors, similar to free-recall reports from children and youth (e.g., Pozzulo & Warren, 2003). ...
Older adults (60- to 99-year-olds) and younger adults (18- to 49-year-olds) viewed a videotaped theft and were then asked to provide a description of the perpetrator. Following a brief delay, participants were presented with a simultaneous, elimination, or wildcard lineup procedure that was either target-present or target-absent. Overall, younger adult eyewitnesses were more likely to be correct in their identification decisions, reported more perpetrator descriptors, and had a higher proportion of accurate descriptors compared to older adults. Moreover, the simultaneous and elimination procedures were superior to the wildcard procedure in target-absent lineups. When presented with a target-present lineup, participants were more likely to be correct when presented with the simultaneous procedure compared to the elimination procedure. Neither of the identification procedures that have been shown to be beneficial with child eyewitnesses appear to have influenced the rate of correct identification or correct rejection for older adults as a separate age group.
... For example, in 1999 Ms. Kemper called the police to report that she saw a burglar fleeing her property (Brisco v. Ercole, 2009 As exemplified above, clothing bias is a particular problem for showups because police generally detain people in close proximity to the crime who match the description given by witnesses or victims (Brisco v. Ercole, 2009;Commonwealth v. Wen Chaio Ye, 2001;People v. Duuvon, 1991). This is problematic as most descriptions are comprised of the clothing worn by the culprit (Dysart, Lindsay, & Dupuis, 2006;Lindsay, Martin, & Weber, 1994;Susa & Meissner, 2008). Lindsay et al. (1994) examined and compared eyewitness descriptions in both criminal cases (105 descriptions) and from a series of lab studies (100 descriptions). ...
Clothing bias occurs during a showup when the clothing worn by the suspect matches the clothing of the culprit during a crime. The present study investigated whether a clothing match enhanced identification performance at varying levels of culprit facial view. Witnesses watched a mock-crime video and then made an identification decision from a showup. The results indicated that a clothing match led to an increase in correct and false identifications of the suspect, regardless of facial view. However, the presence of a clothing match did not enhance discriminability. Additionally, there was not a match by facial view interaction. Furthermore, there was not calibration of the confidence-accuracy relationship for match or view. The results are discussed in terms of the outshining hypothesis and the legal implications of showup procedures. Le Grand, Alexis Marie, "An exploration of the impact of clothing match and opportunity to view on showup performance" (2020). Theses. 354.
... All of the correlations were positive, but none were significant. Subsequent studies have replicated the weak to nonexistent relationship between witness descriptions and witness accuracy ( Susa & Meissner, 2008). ...
Full-text available
1Role of Social and Behavioral Science in the Law2(UN)Reliability of Eyewitness Identifications3Interrogations and Confessions4Jury Selection5Pretrial Publicity6Expert Evidence7Summary
... Eyewitness descriptions often contain descriptions of clothing, which means that clothing match could play a role at identification (Dysart, Lindsay, & Dupuis, 2006;Susa & Meissner, 2008). A clothing match, often referred to as a clothing bias in psycho-legal research, has generally produced an increase in false identifications. ...
Full-text available
Showups, a single suspect identification, are thought to be a more suggestive procedure than traditional lineups by the U.S. Supreme Court and social science researchers. Previous research typically finds that a clothing match in showup identifications increases false identifications. However, these experiments do not allow for a determination of whether this increase arises from a change in response bias, reduced discriminability, or both. In the present study, participants viewed a mock crime video and made a showup identification with either a clothing match or mismatch. Contrary to prior research, the best discriminability occurred when the guilty and innocent suspects wore clothing that matched the clothing worn during the crime. A clothing match also resulted in a more liberal response bias. The results are consistent with the principle of encoding specificity and the outshining hypothesis, as instantiated in the Item, Context, Ensemble theory. Practical implications are discussed.
Full-text available
Sažetak Inspiracija za rad i problem(i) koji se radom oslovljava(ju): Inspiracija za rad se ogleda u činjenici da iskaz svjedoka predstavlja jedan od najčešćih dokaza u krivičnom postupku, dok saslušanje svjedoka predstavlja središnji segment kriminalističke obrade. Dodatno, kao inspiracija za rad je poslužio nedostatak naučnih radova na ovu temu u Bosni i Hercegovini. Ciljevi rada (naučni i/ili društveni): Cilj ovog rada podrazumijeva pregled istaknutih naučnih istraživanja koja su tangirala problematiku oslovljenu naslovom rada, dovođenje njihovih rezultata u kontekst provođenja radnje saslušanja osoba u kriminalističkoj istrazi, te formuliranje pitanja za buduća naučna istraživanja. Osim toga, rad smjera proširivanju naučnih spoznaja o navedenoj problematici unutar kriminalističke nauke u Bosni i Hercegovini. Metodologija/Dizajn: Izvršena je dokumentaciona analiza naučnih radova koji razmatraju problematiku kvantiteta i kvaliteta opisa počinitelja krivičnog djela. Ograničenja istraživanja/rada: Rad ne sadrži pregled rezultata svih naučnih istraživanja koja su se bavila problematikom kvantiteta i kvaliteta iskaza svjedoka, već samo rezultate najvažnijih naučnih istraživanja. Rezultati/Nalazi: Rezultati provedene analize ukazuju na to da kvantitet opisa počinitelja krivičnog djela ne predstavlja indikator kvaliteta opisa, kao i na činjenicu da kvantitet i kvalitet opisa počinitelja krivičnog djela ne predstavljaju indikator tačnog prepoznavanja osoba.
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Recent studies have demonstrated that requesting individuals to produce a verbal description of a previously seen face can hinder subsequent attempts at identification. This phenomenon, termed ‘verbal overshadowing’, has been studied rather extensively in the face-identification paradigm; however, studies have not always replicated the general effect. Based upon both practical and theoretical interests in the phenomenon, a meta-analysis of 29 effect size comparisons (N = 2018) was conducted. Across the sample of studies there was a small, yet significant, negative effect (Fisher's Zr = −0.12), indicating some degree of verbal impairment or overshadowing. A fixed-effects analysis of several moderating variables demonstrated a significant effect of post-description delay and type of description instruction. The pattern of means indicated that overshadowing effects were more likely to occur when the identification task immediately followed the description task, and when participants were given an elaborative, as opposed to a standard (free recall), instruction during the description task. Inconsistencies in the literature are discussed, as well as various theoretical and applied issues regarding the verbal overshadowing effect. Copyright © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Meissner See also Children's Testimony
  • J Kyle
  • Susa
  • A Christian
Kyle J. Susa and Christian A. Meissner See also Children's Testimony; Cognitive Interview;
Describing others: Psychological issues
  • S L Sporer
Sporer, S. L. (1996). Describing others: Psychological issues. In S. L. Sporer, R. S. Malpass, & G. Koehnken (Eds.), Psychological issues in eyewitness identification (pp. 53-86). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Effect in Eyewitness Identification
  • Cross-Race
Cross-Race Effect in Eyewitness Identification; Elderly Eyewitnesses; Exposure Time and Eyewitness Memory;