Perhaps it is the scope of Legal Psychology that is best known at the academic level. The testimony psychology It is an area of knowledge that studies how a witness perceives, retains and retrieves information about an event or a person.
Sometimes the newspapers they surprise us with the news of a judicial error motivated by the statements of a witness. Thus, two of the most notable cases in our country:
One of them a person remained for 2 years accused of a crime he had not committed. The error was due to the fact that the owner of the establishment where the crime was committed identified that person as the author and also recognized him as guilty among the members of a wheel of prisoners. The reality is that this person was not the robber but a customer who had bought in his business 3 years ago, and that's why his face sounded.
In another case, a person was charged with murder. He was mistakenly identified 7 people as the author of a murder for having the pockmarked face like that of the real killer, whom the police found after this person had been in prison for three months.
Testimony psychology: where is its importance
The identification of a suspect by one or several witnesses as testimony, constitutes one of the fundamental elements of criminal proceedings.
These two cases would be examples of the importance of memory so that the identification is correct or incorrect. This incorrect identification could result in not only the conviction of an innocent person but also the acquittal of the true guilty murderer. This identification failure is known as unconscious transfer.
In this article, we will analyze the factors that can contribute to events like these and how psychologists have contributed to their prevention.
The psychology of the witness
First, interest has focused on understanding why people mistakenly identify others, and secondly, on trying to improve this identification.
We know, for example, that there are variables inherent in the same situation that may affect the memory of the witness: duration, level of violence, lighting conditions, etc. and variables inherent to the witness also influence: stress level, sex, age, expectations, physiological state, etc.
Research in testimony psychology has devoted special attention to study of the memory of eyewitnesses. As is known, memory is a complex process in which we can identify three moments: acquisition, retention and recovery.
The importance of memory in the psychology of testimony
The acquisition includes the perception and coding of the original event, as well as the transfer of information from working memory to long-term memory. The memory that remains in the memory is not an exact replica of the perceived event, but is affected by variables inherent to the situation as variables inherent to the witness as we have seen.
Retention refers to the time elapsed between the observation of the event and the subsequent recall. During this period the information becomes less complete and accurate. Two factors influence it: the retention interval and post-event information.
Finally, the third moment corresponds to memory. In this phase the recovery of the information that is stored in memory takes place.
Despite the importance of each of these moments for the psychology of testimony, the reality is that not everyone has received the same attention in forensic investigation. The first two have undergone more studies.
And regarding the third moment, Information retrieval has focused on the person who should remember the facts. That is, in the witness and not in the one in charge of helping him with his task, that is, the police.
However, without a good performance by the person in charge of the interview during this third moment, the conditions under which the acquisition and retention has taken place are of no use to the witness.
Presentation of a case to illustrate this last idea
One night, 4 people leave a restaurant. On the road to the car, they are assaulted by 2 young people. One of them armed with a razor.
Threatens one of the people in the group with her and pushes them towards the wall. Several streetlights in a square illuminate the scene. One of the witnesses reacts quickly and runs for help.
The other 2 remain defenseless against the threat to the victim. She is convinced that they will receive help, delays the delivery of money. Time passes and the threat becomes more determined.
After a few seconds of doubt, the victim ends up giving his money to the assailant who runs away with his partner. The victim and one of the witnesses were expert psychologists in experimental forensic psychology and specifically in testimony psychology. The other 2 people were young researchers in this same field.
The victim who knows that one of the problems in identifying an assailant is the focus of attention on the weapon during the assault, avoided doing so.
In addition, he invested the time in which he refused to hand over the money to memorize in detail the physical features of the assailant, looking for possible identifying signs and carefully studied his clothes.
The importance of offering an accurate testimony
Witnesses who know the importance of accurate and detailed testimony performed a similar task. Witnesses and victims avoided commenting on what happened until after being interrogated by the police, just 1 hour later.
Once at the police station, only the victim was allowed to testify. The transcript of his statement was reduced to just a couple of paragraphs by the police officer in charge of taking his statement. The questions asked focused almost exclusively on the description of the stolen.
No album was presented with photographs of suspects. When the police were warned that on this occasion everyone, witness and victim, were experts in testimony psychology and were trained and willing to provide accurate and reliable information, they were only content with evasiveness.
Since then neither victim nor witnesses have been called to make any identification and, of course, no suspects have been arrested. As you can see, this case is a good example of the importance of the action of the person in charge of collecting the information.
In this case, even when the information was acquired in optimal conditions (good lighting, long duration, trained witnesses and victims) and the retention interval did not pose any risk for the information (delay of only a few minutes and testimonies not contaminated by post-event information) even though these things happen, A statement as complete and accurate as it could have been was not obtained.
The use of inappropriate interview techniques can limit the amount of information that the witness provides during the recall of the events.
Thus, as important is the memory, coding and recovery of memories, as the proper use of forensic legal investigation techniques and interviews. The importance of the interview is fundamental.
- Arce, R., & Fariña, F. (2006). Testimony psychology: Evaluation of credibility and psychic footprint in the criminal context.General Council of the Judiciary (Ed.), Psychology of testimony and expert evidence, 39-103.
- Manzanero, A. L., & González, J. L. (2013). Advances in testimony psychology.Santiago de Chile: Legal Issues of Santiago.
- Manzanero, A. L., & Muñoz, J. M. (2011). The psychological expert test on the credibility of the testimony: Psycho-legal reflections.Madrid: SEPIN, 1-13.