How Variations in Distance Affect Eyewitness Reports and Identification Accuracy

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Abstract

Witnesses observe crimes at various distances and the courts have to interpret their testimony given the likely quality of witnesses' views of events. We examined how accurately witnesses judged the distance between themselves and a target person, and how distance affected description accuracy, choosing behavior, and identification test accuracy. Over 1,300 participants were approached during normal daily activities, and asked to observe a target person at one of a number of possible distances. Under a Perception, Immediate Memory, or Delayed Memory condition, witnesses provided a brief description of the target, estimated the distance to the target, and then examined a 6-person target-present or target-absent lineup to see if they could identify the target. Errors in distance judgments were often substantial. Description accuracy was mediocre and did not vary systematically with distance. Identification choosing rates were not affected by distance, but decision accuracy declined with distance. Contrary to previous research, a 15-m viewing distance was not critical for discriminating accurate from inaccurate decisions.

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