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Eyewitness testimony increasingly unreliable under stress: UK study

[JURIST] An eyewitness' ability to recall specific details of an incident decreases dramatically in high-stress situations, according to a new study [PDF text; press release] that could have long-ranging impact on law enforcement and legal procedures. The study, conducted by Tin Valentine and Jan Mesout of Goldsmiths [academic website], part of the University of London, measured participants' ability to recall details about an actor instructed to jump out at visitors as they moved through a "fun-house" maze. The study found that participants who reported being more stressed during the visit consistently failed to correctly identify specific details about the actor afterwards.

The study distinguished between "low stress" situations, which might actually produce a heightened awareness of one's surroundings, with "high stress" terror, which reduces one's recall. The researchers noted that the latter form of stress is more often the one experienced by witnesses to crimes. Evidence reform advocates are already critical of eyewitness testimony [NLADA materials] and some have predicted [advocacy blog] that the study could have major implications for criminal cases that rely on eyewitness testimony.

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