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Researchers have suggested that incidents involving the presence
of a weapon will have a negative impact on eyewitness performance (Kassin et
al., 2001). This phenomenon is referred to as the weapon focus effect (Loftus
et al., 1987). The presence of a weapon captures the attention of an eyewitness,
decreasing their ability to recall an accurate description of the perpetrator (Pickel
et al., 2003) and resulting in diminished identification accuracy in subsequent
suspect line-ups (Loftus et al., 1987). Therefore, the presence of a gun in
this case study could be a key factor that contributed to the misidentification
and wrongful conviction of Odom.

 

The mechanisms underlying the weapon focus effect are largely unclear,
however, most of studies in this area are based on two theoretical
explanations: the arousal/threat hypothesis and the unusual item hypothesis (Fawcett
et al., 2013). Easterbrook’s (1959) cue-utilization theory is founded on the arousal/threat
hypothesis. It claims that physiological arousal decreases the number of environmental
cues that can be concurrently monitored. Only those cues that are the focus of
attention are utilised. When this theory is applied to the weapon focus effect,
the presence of a weapon is considered threatening and elevates physiological
arousal. This results in a fixation on the weapon and decrease of peripheral
stimuli, thus diminishing memory for details of the perpetrator. Whilst the arousal/threat
hypothesis has been supported by a number of different studies (Peters, 1988),
several other studies have been unsuccessful in finding an effect (Maass &
Kohnken, 1989). These contracting outcomes could be due to the artificial
methods used to elicit arousal and the problems with defining arousal. For
example, the arousal caused in real crimes could be a result of anxiety, fear or
an increased state of alertness (Hope & Wright, 2007). These
different sources of physiological arousal may influence memory recall differentially
(Fawcett et al., 2013).

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Instead of associating increased levels of arousal with
attentional narrowing, other research has shown that unusualness can also
influence the attention of a witness (Antes, 1974). Surprising or unexpected
objects attract the observer’s attention compared to objects that are expected
given the scene’s content (Loftus & Mackworth, 1978). The unusual item hypothesis considers
weapons to be unusual in many contexts. In this instance, the victim in our
case study would not commonly associate the presence of a gun in her apartment
and therefore the victim’s attentional resources would be focused on resolving
the conflict existing between the gun and the schema representing her
environment. As a result details of the perpetrator would not be properly
encoded. This explanation has been supported by a growing number of studies
demonstrating this effect with unusual objects instead of weapons (Pickel, 1998).
In addition, weapon focus effect does not occur in situations where weapons
would be expected, for example at a shooting range (Pickel, 1999). These
findings are explained by the unusual item hypothesis, but not by the arousal/threat
hypothesis.

One
of the major limitations with the majority of studies that support these hypotheses
is the disconnection between the circumstances involved in witnessing of a real
crime and the circumstances involved in the laboratory research being conducted.
Some of the simulation and laboratory studies only expose participants to a
weapon for a brief period of time and then conduct a memory test shortly
afterwards (reference). In real situations perpetrator identifications rarely happens
this soon after the crime. For instance, in this case study the victim was
asked to view photos of possible suspects five weeks after the event. Furthermore,
there is a lack research exploring weapon exposure duration within the experimental
weapon focus literature (Fawcett et al., 2013). It is important for additional
studies to explore in more detail the relationship between retention interval,
exposure duration and weapon focus (Fawcett et al., 2013).

Despite
these differing explanations, research has consistently demonstrated that the
presence of a weapon has a negative effect on both feature and identification
accuracy under controlled conditions (Pickel, 2007). However, field and archival
studies have failed to produce a reliable effect of weapon presence (Cooper et
al., 2002; Valentine et al., 2003). This suggests that weapon focus is
currently limited to laboratory and simulation experiments. Fawcett et al (2013)
are not convinced with this outcome and instead argue that this affect is present
outside the labResearchers have suggested that incidents involving the presence
of a weapon will have a negative impact on eyewitness performance (Kassin et
al., 2001). This phenomenon is referred to as the weapon focus effect (Loftus
et al., 1987). The presence of a weapon captures the attention of an eyewitness,
decreasing their ability to recall an accurate description of the perpetrator (Pickel
et al., 2003) and resulting in diminished identification accuracy in subsequent
suspect line-ups (Loftus et al., 1987). Therefore, the presence of a gun in
this case study could be a key factor that contributed to the misidentification
and wrongful conviction of Odom.

 

The mechanisms underlying the weapon focus effect are largely unclear,
however, most of studies in this area are based on two theoretical
explanations: the arousal/threat hypothesis and the unusual item hypothesis (Fawcett
et al., 2013). Easterbrook’s (1959) cue-utilization theory is founded on the arousal/threat
hypothesis. It claims that physiological arousal decreases the number of environmental
cues that can be concurrently monitored. Only those cues that are the focus of
attention are utilised. When this theory is applied to the weapon focus effect,
the presence of a weapon is considered threatening and elevates physiological
arousal. This results in a fixation on the weapon and decrease of peripheral
stimuli, thus diminishing memory for details of the perpetrator. Whilst the arousal/threat
hypothesis has been supported by a number of different studies (Peters, 1988),
several other studies have been unsuccessful in finding an effect (Maass &
Kohnken, 1989). These contracting outcomes could be due to the artificial
methods used to elicit arousal and the problems with defining arousal. For
example, the arousal caused in real crimes could be a result of anxiety, fear or
an increased state of alertness (Hope & Wright, 2007). These
different sources of physiological arousal may influence memory recall differentially
(Fawcett et al., 2013).

 

Instead of associating increased levels of arousal with
attentional narrowing, other research has shown that unusualness can also
influence the attention of a witness (Antes, 1974). Surprising or unexpected
objects attract the observer’s attention compared to objects that are expected
given the scene’s content (Loftus & Mackworth, 1978). The unusual item hypothesis considers
weapons to be unusual in many contexts. In this instance, the victim in our
case study would not commonly associate the presence of a gun in her apartment
and therefore the victim’s attentional resources would be focused on resolving
the conflict existing between the gun and the schema representing her
environment. As a result details of the perpetrator would not be properly
encoded. This explanation has been supported by a growing number of studies
demonstrating this effect with unusual objects instead of weapons (Pickel, 1998).
In addition, weapon focus effect does not occur in situations where weapons
would be expected, for example at a shooting range (Pickel, 1999). These
findings are explained by the unusual item hypothesis, but not by the arousal/threat
hypothesis.

One
of the major limitations with the majority of studies that support these hypotheses
is the disconnection between the circumstances involved in witnessing of a real
crime and the circumstances involved in the laboratory research being conducted.
Some of the simulation and laboratory studies only expose participants to a
weapon for a brief period of time and then conduct a memory test shortly
afterwards (reference). In real situations perpetrator identifications rarely happens
this soon after the crime. For instance, in this case study the victim was
asked to view photos of possible suspects five weeks after the event. Furthermore,
there is a lack research exploring weapon exposure duration within the experimental
weapon focus literature (Fawcett et al., 2013). It is important for additional
studies to explore in more detail the relationship between retention interval,
exposure duration and weapon focus (Fawcett et al., 2013).

Despite
these differing explanations, research has consistently demonstrated that the
presence of a weapon has a negative effect on both feature and identification
accuracy under controlled conditions (Pickel, 2007). However, field and archival
studies have failed to produce a reliable effect of weapon presence (Cooper et
al., 2002; Valentine et al., 2003). This suggests that weapon focus is
currently limited to laboratory and simulation experiments. Fawcett et al (2013)
are not convinced with this outcome and instead argue that this affect is present
outside the laboratory but obscured by the complexities of real-world crime.

The findings from the current literature need to be
considered when developing public policy on the credibility of the weapon focus
phenomenon in a court of law (Fawcett et al, 2013). Given the general
failure to identify any negative impact of weapon presence in the real world,
some researchers have suggested that the weapon focus effect should be
dismissed as irrelevant to the topic of eyewitness testimony. This argument has
been supported by two major governmental reports issued in both the USA (Mecklenburg,
2006) and the UK (Pike et al., 2002).

However, some researchers argue that it would be beneficial prosecution
and defence lawyers to hear expert evidence concerning weapon focus in relevant
cases to assure witness testimony does not lead to miscarriages of justice (Fawcett et
al., 2013).oratory but obscured by the complexities of real-world crime.

The findings from the current literature need to be
considered when developing public policy on the credibility of the weapon focus
phenomenon in a court of law (Fawcett et al, 2013). Given the general
failure to identify any negative impact of weapon presence in the real world,
some researchers have suggested that the weapon focus effect should be
dismissed as irrelevant to the topic of eyewitness testimony. This argument has
been supported by two major governmental reports issued in both the USA (Mecklenburg,
2006) and the UK (Pike et al., 2002).

However, some researchers argue that it would be beneficial prosecution
and defence lawyers to hear expert evidence concerning weapon focus in relevant
cases to assure witness testimony does not lead to miscarriages of justice (Fawcett et
al., 2013).

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