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March 3, 1975

The Power of Unbiased Observation

JAMA. 1975;231(9):966. doi:10.1001/jama.1975.03240210046020

Robert Buckhout1 has written a well-thought-out assessment of the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and the degree to which it is influenced by emotional, character-linked, or fantasy-spurred factors. Buckhout says that although testimonies are frequently challenged, they are assumed to be more reliable than other kinds of evidence. Numerous experiments show, however, that eyewitness testimony is remarkably subject to error. Mistaken identity has sent people to prison, the gallows, and torture, and mistaken facts have sent many a patient to the mortuary. The article is worth reading for every law enforcement officer, lawyer, and physician.

Eyewitness testimony is based on the recollection of simple facts as they occurred, how they looked, and how they were fixed in the memory of the person reporting them. It is based on the quality of recollection and the quantity of correct data. All this invariably has to do with the power of observation, which