How to Be a Better Eyewitness

ByABC News
October 15, 2002, 3:40 PM

Oct. 16 -- What's in a memory? All too often, experts say, much more than recollections of actual events.

As University of Washington psychologist Elizabeth Loftus writes with co-author Katerine Ketcham in Witness For the Defense, memory is not "preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks and expands again."

Loftus points out that coaxing the public for eyewitness testimony related to the highly publicized string of sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C., area is a gamble.

By providing the public with details from other eyewitness accounts such as sightings of a white van with a ladder rack and a white box truck police hope to trigger the memories of people who were near the shooting sites. But Loftus says offering such information can also "contaminate" the memories of others and make good eyewitness accounts turn bad.

Montgomery County, Md., police Chief Charles Moose and other investigators are nonetheless urging people who may have any information related to the string of 11 sniper shootings to contact police.

The chief said he realized it was hard to get strictly accurate accounts from people who may not have been paying much attention before an incident occurred.

"No one knows how to be a witness," Moose recently told reporters. "We have to train people to be a witness."

Can people be trained to be good witnesses? Although studies have shown that training generally can't improve memory recall, specialists in eyewitness testimony say there are things people can do to provide more accurate witness testimony.

Steps to Better Recall

The first rule in making a memory more accurate is to record it as soon as possible.

Gary Wells, a psychology professor at Iowa State University who has studied eyewitness testimony for 25 years, suggests carrying a notepad and pen or a voice recorder at all times. This can help ensure that people who happen to be near the scene of an incident are prepared to record details.