An eyewitness memory is a person's episodic memory for a crime or other dramatic event that he or she has witnessed. Eyewitness testimony is often relied upon in the judicial system. However, the accuracy of eyewitness memories is sometimes questioned because there are many factors that can act during encoding and retrieval of the witnessed event which may adversely affect the creation and maintenance of the memory for the event. Experts have found evidence to suggest that eyewitness memory is volatile. It has long been speculated that mistaken eyewitness identification plays a major role in the wrongful conviction of innocent individuals. A growing body of research now supports this speculation, indicating that mistaken eyewitness identification is responsible for more convictions of the innocent than all other factors combined. The Innocence Project determined that 75% of the 239 DNA exoneration cases had occurred due to inaccurate eyewitness testimony. It is important to inform the public about the flawed nature of eyewitness memory and the difficulties relating to its use in the criminal justice system so that eyewitness accounts are not viewed as the absolute truth.
- 1 Encoding
- 2 Retrieval
- 2.1 Lineups:
- 2.2 Interviews:
- 3 Child Testimony
- 4 Intellectual Ability and Testimony
- 5 Photographic Memory (Eidetic Memory)
- 6 References
During the Event:
Challenges of Identifying Faces
People struggle to identify faces in person or from photos, a difficulty arising from the encoding of faces. When participants were given a basic memory test from an array of photos or a lineup, they struggled to accurately identify the images and had low recognition. This finding provides a starting point for estimating the accuracy of eyewitnesses' identification of others involved in a traumatic event. It can only get more challenging for a person to accurately encode a face when they are experiencing a traumatic event. Because courts rely on eyewitness facial recognition, it is important to acknowledge that identification is not always accurate. Face-specific cognitive and neural processes show contributions to holistic processing and recognition in the episodic memories of eyewitnesses. Unreliability of eyewitness identifications may be a result of mismatching between how faces are holistically processed and how composite systems retrieve features in faces during an event.
The other-race effect (i.e. the own-race bias, cross-race effect, other-ethnicity effect, same-race advantage) is one factor thought to impact the accuracy of facial recognition. Studies on this effect have shown that a person better recognizes faces of his or her own race and shows less reliability in identifying other unfamiliar races, thus inhibiting encoding. Various explanations for this effect have been proposed. The perceptual expertise account suggests that with an increase of exposure to one's own race, perceptual mechanisms develop which allow people to be more proficient at remembering faces of their own race. The socio-cognitive account predicts that motivational and/or attentional components over focus on the race of a person. Another hypothesis is that each race pays attention to certain facial details to differentiate between faces. However, other races might not encode these same features. A final suggestion is that faces of the same race are encoded more deeply, leading a witness to have a more detailed memory for those faces; but there has not been much research to support this hypothesis. Research on the other race effect has mainly focused on the African American and Caucasian races. Most research has shown that white eyewitnesses exhibit the other-race effect, however this effect does extend to other races too. In general, memory is an individual process and that conceptualization of race causes racial ambiguity in facial recognition. Mono-racial eyewitnesses may depend on categorization more than multiracial eyewitnesses, who develop a more fluid concept of race. Perception may affect the immediate encoding of these unreliable notions due to prejudices, which can influence the speed of processing and classification of racially ambiguous targets. The ambiguity in eyewitness memory facial recognition can be attributed to the divergent strategies that are used when under the influence of racial bias.
Stress and Trauma
Stress or trauma during an event can affect the encoding of the memory. Traumatic events may cause memory to be repressed out of conscious awareness. An inability to access the repressed memory is argued to occur in cases involving child sexual abuse. Another way encoding a memory can be affected is when the person involved in a traumatic event experiences dissociation; he or she mentally removes themselves from the situation, which may serve as a coping mechanism. Lastly, trauma may induce a flashbulb effect; the witness believes they vividly remember significant details of a salient event, although accuracy must be determined of such memories . In legal settings the mental state of an individual at both witnessing a crime and in testimony can affect the success of their memory retrieval. Although stress in small amounts is thought to aid memory, stress in high amounts may hinder memory performance. Witnesses of severe crimes or trauma can suffer from further implications, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or even Psychogenic Amnesia.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Explicit memory (used in legal testimony) is affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD); individuals diagnosed with PTSD can struggle to recall explicit events from their memory, usually of which are especially traumatic events. This may be due to the individual preferring not to think about the unpleasant memory, of which they may rather forget. Implicit memory, on the other hand, does not seem to be affected in the same way that explicit memory does, rather some individuals with PTSD may score higher on implicit memory tests than non-PTSD individuals.
Psychogenic amnesia (or dissociative amnesia) can affect explicit memory for a particular event. Most often cases of psychogenic amnesia occur after witnessing an extremely violent crime or trauma, such as war.
Everyday memory can be affected by factors such as stress or mood. The 'mood congruency' effect refers to memory being aided by a matching of mood at the encoding/learning stage to the retrieval stage. If a memory is encoded under stressfull conditions it may be more likely that the memory is better recalled if stress levels at retrieval are congruent to stress levels at encoding. Mood congruency may affect a witnesses ability to recall a highly stressful crime, if conditions of encoding and retrieval are different. Moderate amounts of stress may be beneficial to memory by the release of corticosteroids. Conversely, too much stress (and therefore an extreme influx of corticosteroids) can affect function of the hippocampus and therefore hinder memory. Very high levels of corticosteroid release may be very detrimental for memory.
The weapon focus effect suggests that the presence of a weapon narrows a person's attention, thus affects eyewitness memory. A person focuses on the central detail (for example, the weapon) and loses focus on the peripheral details (for example, the perpetrator's characteristics). While the weapon is remembered clearly, the memories of the other details of the scene suffer. The weapon focus effect occurs because additional items require more visual attention, therefore they are frequently not processed. This increased focus of attention on central aspects takes away attentional resources from peripheral details. For example, if a gun was brought into a school, it would attract significant amount of attention, because students are not used to seeing that item. When participants were watching a slideshow, and were seeing an unusual stimulus item, their reaction times were slower (regardless whether the stimulus was dangerous) in comparison to reaction times for more frequent stimulus. When the item was dangerous (i.e. a weapon), participants had a lower accuracy and confidence than the control group's. Another hypothesis is that seeing a weapon might cause an aroused state. In an aroused state, people focus on central details instead of peripheral ones.
The testimony of a witness can lose validity due to too many external stimuli, that may affect what was witnessed during the crime, and therefore obstruct memory. For example, if an individual witnesses a car accident on a very public street, there may be too many cues distracting the witness from the main focus. Numerous interfering stimulus inputs may suppress the importance of the stimulus of focus, the accident. This can degrade the memory traces of the event, and diminish the representation of those memories. This is known as the cue-overload principle.
After the Event:
Witnesses can be subject to memory distortions that can alter their account of events. It is of particular interest that the memory of an eyewitness can become compromised by other information, such that an individual's memory becomes biased. This can increase eyewitnesses sensitivity to the misinformation effect. Individuals report what they believe to have witnessed at the time of the crime, even though this may be the result of a false memory. These effects can be a result of post-event information. It is very important to provide witnesses with helpful response options on memory tests and to be warned of misleading influences that might affect how the memory of the event is recalled at a later time. Many employees, police force workers, and others are trained in post-warning in order to reduce influences on the misinformation effect, which can be predicted before crime. In their studies, many researchers use eyewitnesses to study retrieval-blocking effects, which interfere with a witness' ability to recall information. Misleading information prior to the event can also influence misinformation effects. However, retrieval-blocking methods can counteract misleading information in most cases. In addition, when eyewitnesses are given warning to avoid misinformation, more significant and accurate testimonies can be produced. Other studies also address how the misinformation effect seems to amplify over increasing recall. Discussing events and being questioned multiple times may cause various versions of the testimonies. However, the earliest records prove to be the most accurate due to a minimized misinformation effect.
Many mistaken identifications are the result of unconscious transference, or the inability to distinguish between the perpetrator and another person who was encountered in a different context. In many of these cases, the culprit is confused with a different person who was present at the crime scene. Implicit processing takes place during the event, in which the witness encodes the general features of innocent bystanders, creating a sense of familiarity. At retrieval, this familiarity could cause people who were merely present in the crime scene to be confused with the culprit. After viewing a video of a crime involving a thief and two innocent bystanders, participants were asked to identify the perpetrator from a lineup including the three persons present in the video and three other people never before encountered. Most participants falsely identified an innocent person from the lineup. Furthermore, participants were more likely to misidentify one of the two innocent confederates in the video than one of the three unfamiliar people. Unconscious transference occurs in this instance when the witness misattributes his or her sense of familiarity of the perpetrator to a bystander. This confusing effect of familiarity is found in the mug shot procedure as well. The presentation of mug shot arrays alone does not seem to influence identification accuracy. However, this presentation can be influential if the police lineups include individuals who were earlier featured in the mug shot array. Individuals appearing in police lineups that also appeared in previous photo arrays may be identified as quickly as identifying the actual target. Therefore, in cases where a suspect is identified from mug shots following a line-up, it is uncertain whether the line-up identification is a result of the recognition of the perpetrator or of the detection of a person seen previously in mug shots.
A police lineup is a method for an eyewitness to identify a perpetrator by viewing a series of photos, or a live group of suspects. One possible outcome of a lineup is that the eyewitness can correctly identify the criminal. Another outcome is that the eyewitness can correctly state that the criminal is not in the lineup. A third option is that the eyewitness can fail to recognize that the culprit is present. Lastly, the eyewitness can incorrectly select another suspect. The ideal result is to correctly identify the offender, and the worst outcome is to mistakenly identify an innocent.
Police Role in Lineup
There are specific guidelines for police to follow when administering a lineup, to reduce bias in the lineup and increase the accuracy of eyewitness judgements. Police must reduce the pressure that eyewitnesses feel to select a criminal from an array of photos or persons. They should make sure that the eyewitness is aware that the perpetrator might not be in the lineup. Also, police should conduct a double blind procedure that does not allow them to see the lineup. This prevents police from giving the eyewitness any information, intentional or not, about who in the lineup is a police suspect. It also prevents the police from giving any feedback to the eyewitness. Feedback can produce a false confidence in the witness' selection. When overseeing a lineup, the police can use speed of recognition to determine the validity of the identification. If the witness quickly identifies the perpetrator, then the selection is more likely to be correct.
Style of Lineup
A sequential lineup presents a witness with a series of photos one at a time, requiring the participant to identify if each photo matches his/her memory before moving forward. The witness does not know how many photos are in the group. In a simultaneous lineup, the photos or suspects are viewed together. Sequential lineups produce fewer identifications, since they are more challenging, and require absolute judgement. This means that the decision regarding the matching of the memory to the photo is independently made. On the other hand, a simultaneous lineup requires relative judgement, as the decision is not independent of the other possibilities. Police tend to use simultaneous lineups because they result in more correct identifications, although recently researchers have urged police to use sequential lineups as they result in less incorrect identifications. When a second lap of the suspects (a repeated viewing of a sequential lineup) is shown, more errors occur than when a single lap is shown. If a second lap is required, there are fewer errors than if the lap is chosen by a participant.
Size of Lineup
Lineup members should have diverse characteristics so that lineups are not biased toward or against the suspect. If the appearance of a person stands out amongst the otherwise indistinctive crowd then an eyewitness is more likely to select that person regardless of their own recollection of the criminal. Thus, this line up is suggestive. Fillers should be added to the lineup in order to depict a broad spectrum of characteristics, but must match any known description of the offender. If lineup members do not all match the known description of the offender then the lineup is biased toward the suspect. Biased lineups have been shown to increase misidentifications, particularly in target-absent lineups. Increasing the nominal size of a lineup (the actual number of suspects that are compiled) often decreases the potential for a wrong selection. Functional size also plays a role in lineup bias. Functional size is the reciprocal of the fraction of mock witnesses that choose the suspect from a lineup. For example, in a lineup of nominal size 5, if 15 out of 30 mock witnesses (randomly chosen individuals that did not experience the offence) choose the suspect, the functional size of the lineup is the reciprocal of 15/30, which is 30/15, or 2. So although the lineup has 5 members, functionally it only has 2. Effective size is the number of probable suspects. Police use these three numbers to evaluate a lineup.
Many studies, as well as police procedures, are dependent on photo lineups or police lineups where the eyewitness views the suspects from a distance. This procedure is done in an attempt to eliminate suspects and identify the perpetrator. These types of lineups allow only small degrees of visual information for the eyewitness, such as limited viewing angles, which restrict the level of detail compared to a computerized virtual lineup where witnesses can see the targets from multiple angles and distances. One might anticipate that examination of the suspects from unlimited viewpoints would allow for better recognition cues, than when compared to limited views. However, unlimited visual information may be disadvantageous and counterproductive if the information offered at the time of retrieval was not actually present at the time of memory encoding. For example, if an eyewitness only saw the face of the perpetrator from one angle, seeing the lineup participants from other viewpoints might be distracting. Other studies have demonstrated that unlimited viewpoints do improve accuracy in police lineups. It should also be noted that the eyewitness accuracy improves when the distance between the suspect and witness matches the distance during the initial witnessing of the crime.
Another phenomenon that may interfere with an eyewitness' memory is retroactive interference. This occurs when new information is processed that obstructs the retrieval of old information. A common source of interference that may occur after the event of a crime is the reporting of the crime. Police investigations include questioning that is often suggestive. The processing of new information may disrupt or entirely replace old information. If a police officer has reason to believe that a suspect is guilty the interrogator's bias can influence the eyewitness' memory. The interrogators can also put pressure on witnesses causing them to want to select a perpetrator from a police lineup. Eyewitnesses are often unsuspecting of the interrogator bias and believe their memories to be uncontaminated.
The presence of a co-witness can often contaminate memories. When witnesses confer about an event they can end up agreeing on an incorrect narrative. Research has found that 71% of witnesses changed their eyewitness accounts to include false components that their co-witnesses remembered. This makes it very difficult to reconstruct the actual account of an event. To prevent this effect, police should separate witnesses as early as possible before the reporting of the event. Unfortunately this is difficult, especially if the police do not get involved immediately after the event. Police should inform witnesses of the possibility of contamination as soon as possible. Witnesses should be interviewed as soon as possible with police noting if the witnesses have compared accounts. Once the accounts have been recorded, police should make notes of similarities or differences that could point to contaminated details or facts. 
A witness identifying a suspect can make a decision with little or great confidence. Level of confidence varies between different witnesses and situations. There are two types of confidence: confidence in a witness' own ability to make an identification (prior to viewing a police lineup) and confidence in having made an accurate identification or accurate rejection.
The witness' confidence in his/her ability to make a correct identification should not be used to assess the accuracy of identification. Witnesses should be asked to attempt identifications even if their confidence is low. Confidence ratings after identification of a suspect is a better ( but not perfect) predictor.
In many experiments, witnesses are asked to rate their confidence in their decision after making an identification from a lineup. Witnesses that are confident in their identifications are only slightly more likely to be correct when compared to witnesses who exhibit little confidence in their decision. A number of psychologists have investigated factors that might affect the confidence accuracy relationship.
The optimality hypothesis states that factors influencing the optimality of information processing also influence the reliability of the confidence estimate. During situations in which information processing conditions are less than optimal (e.g. the perpetrator is disguised or duration of exposure is brief) witnesses' performance during identification decreases and they are less confident in their decision. The confidence accuracy correlation is thus estimated to be stronger in situations of optimal information processing such as longer exposure time, and weaker under conditions that that are not optimal.
Certain factors affect identification accuracy without influencing confidence whereas other factors influence confidence without having an effect on identification accuracy. Reconstructive processes in memory (i.e. the influence of post-event information on stored memories) can influence identification accuracy while not necessarily affecting confidence. Social influence processes (i.e. committing to a decision) might have an effect on confidence judgements while having little to no effect on the accuracy of the identification.
It is commonly assumed that the confidence of an eyewitness when identifying a suspect is important for accuracy of identification but this is not the case. Accuracy in identification depends on the circumstances surrounding the identification as well as the factors discussed above. The confidence of a witness during identification is generally a weak predictor of identification accuracy, as is the quality of descriptions and the consistency between descriptions. These factors should not be taken into account when choosing whether or not to conduct a police lineup. When evaluating identification evidence, greater attention should be paid to the circumstances surrounding the identification as the confidence of the eyewitness is less important.
The method of conducting an interview has great implication on the accuracy of the testimony. When the person being interviewed is forced to provide more information, he/she is more likely to engage in confabulation. For example, when participants were shown a video and instructed to answer all questions (answerable and unanswerable) about its content, they often fabricated information. Hypnosis is not an effective technique for retrieving inaccessible information because the amount of information reported would increase along with the amount of confabulation, possibly resulting in a false testimony.
Cognitive Interview Technique
Researchers have developed a strategy, entitled the cognitive interview technique, to elicit the most accurate eyewitness memory. In this preferred protocol for conducting interviews, the interrogator should make the witness feel comfortable, ask open-ended questions, and grant the witness freedom in describing the event. In addition, the interviewer should encourage the witness to exhaust his/her memory by reinstating the context of the event, recalling the events in different orders, and viewing the event scene from different perspectives.
Distortions in a witness's memory can be induced by suggestive questioning procedures. Asking eyewitnesses to repeatedly retrieve information in multiple interviews may enhance memory because the event is being rehearsed many times or, as in many cases, increase suggestibility. Misleading information offered by the investigators may attract more attention than the originally-encoded information, so the witness' memory of the event is altered to include erroneous details suggested during the interview. In addition, repeating questions could make the witness feel pressured to change his or her answer or elaborate on an already-given response with fabricated details. Open-ended questioning can reduce the level of retrieval-enhanced suggestibility because the witness is not subjected to testing manipulation by the interviewer.
Contextual reinstatement is a common technique used to help eyewitnesses remember details about a specific environment– reviewing the initial environment in which the original information was encoded. Taking a witness back to the scene where the event occurred, for example, will help facilitate the accuracy in identifying perpetrators. Reinstatement is thought to improve recall as it provides memory retrieval cues. Research has demonstrated that pairing faces of suspects or words with contextual cues at the scene of the crime will enhance performance on recognition tasks. Therefore, it seems practical that these results can be applied to eyewitness identification. Methods commonly used to examine context reinstatement include photographs of the environment/scene, mental contextual reinstatement cues, and guided recollection. Studies show that re-exposing participants to the crime scene does enhance performance in facial recognition. There were also notable effects for context reinstatement where improvement on correct identifications while increasing false alarms. Reports also show that the magnitude of improvement via context reinstatement increased in lifelike situations compared to laboratory studies.
An alteration of context was found to be one of the most important predictors of recognition accuracy. Such changes in experimental context have been shown to have effects similar to transformations in appearance, such as disguises. Criminal identifications can be influenced by a change in context. Investigators must account for the fact that encountering an acquaintance that we usually see in one context, such as work place, alters memory generalizability when compared to encountering the same acquaintance in another environment that acts like an unassociated context, such as a grocery store. The changes in environment make it difficult to identify this acquaintance. Initially, the individual might seem familiar but because this person is not in the normal context, it might be difficult to place the face and recall the name. Researchers have begun to implement procedures for reinstating the context surrounding a specific event in an attempt to improve identification accuracy. Reinstating the crime scene is often not possible. Sometimes, however it is possible to have eyewitnesses imagine and thus mentally reinstate the surroundings with imagery instructions and other mnemonic devices. In some instances, objects from the crime scene such as guns or clothing can be used additionally to help reinstate the context. Such methods have successfully shown to improve reliability and accuracy of eyewitness recall.
Children's testimony refers to when children are required to testify in court after witnessing or being involved in a crime. In situations where a child is the main witness of a crime, the result of the hearing is dependent on the child's memory of the event. And there are several important issues associated with eyewitness memory of children. For example, the accuracy of the child's explanation, in such situations, coupled with how well the child can identify the setting of the crime and the individuals involved in the crime, influence the credibility of the child's testimony. Sometimes, children can correctly report details of a crime they witnessed or experienced and can identify those responsible, but child eyewitnesses can also create false memories.
Like all eyewitnesses, child eyewitnesses are subject to memory errors. However, a child victim or eyewitness poses additional challenges to law enforcement because children often have a limited vocabulary, a desire to please the officer, or difficulty answering questions because of trauma. Using early childhood memories in eyewitness testimony can also be challenging because for the first 1–2 years of life, brain structures such as the limbic system, which holds the hippocampus and the amygdala and is involved in memory storage, are not yet fully developed. Research has demonstrated that children can remember events from before the age of 3–4 years, but that these memories decline as children get older (see childhood amnesia).
Children can be involved in testimony not only when they are witnesses, but also when they are victims. Due to the sensitivity of these cases, strategic interviewing is implemented for children, which may result in the validity of the memory to suffer. Strategic interviewing must be assessed with sensitivity on an individual bases and without leading questions, as they may influence the child's answer. Additional influences may include individuals surrounding the child prior to, and during the hearing. If children hear new information from such individuals, studies show that children will more than likely agree with what the others said – regardless of the child's initial opinion.
Studies on children show that the average child is at greater risk for memory loss, due to the brain's immaturity and plasticity, when compared to an average adult. Poorer memory performance in young kids was shown when youth of different ages were asked to recall a doctor's visit. Children aged 3–5 answered with much less accuracy than individuals aged 6–15, indicating developmental differences in memory capacity. However, children often demonstrate high accuracy in remembering events that are personally meaningful, such as genital contact, which is prevalent in cases of sexual assault. Furthermore, it has been shown that information encoded and stored in memory is dependent on the extent of knowledge regarding the event. That is, if a child is exposed to an event that he or she knows little about, their memory of the event will not be as accurate when compared to a child who is more knowledgeable on event-related topics. These results of increased sensitivity, suggestibility and memory loss in children lead one to question the competency of a child to serve as an eyewitness. Researchers have determined that a child should be considered a competent witness if he or she has the capacity to observe, communicate, produce sufficient memories, differentiate truth from lies, and understand the obligation to tell the truth.
Intellectual Ability and Testimony
Individuals with intellectual disabilities are at a higher risk for sexual abuse and exploitation because they are often dependent on others and uneducated or physically incompetent in ways of self-protection. Therefore, much research has been devoted to investigating the accountability of these individuals in eyewitness testimonies. When a group of adults chosen by the Developmental Disabilities Association was compared to a control group of college students, they performed equally well when a target was absent from a lineup. However, the control group were better at recognizing when a target was present in a lineup, leading to the determination that people with intellectual disabilities are more suggestible and likely to confabulate. Children with intellectual disabilities show similar patterns in their eyewitness accounts. After watching a video of a crime, children with these disabilities performed worse than non-disabled kids of the same age on free recall, open-ended questions, and both general and specific misleading questions. These children performed better than the age-matched control group only on leading questions with yes or no answers, suggesting that they are more likely to acquiesce in the interview. These findings indicate that individuals with intellectual disabilities could be considered competent witnesses if interrogated in a non-leading manner.
Photographic Memory (Eidetic Memory)
Perception and knowledge of the world stem and expand from the selection and integration of stimuli hitting our sensory receptors. As a result, the most precise visual memories possible could only be the images that created the initial visual integration and not the stimulus array itself. Individuals who are said to possess eidetic memories, may be of particular use in courtrooms when acting as an eyewitness, as they have the ability to hold to an image in mind for longer and with more accuracy than the average individual. This would be particularly useful at the time of a crime to retain images such as the perpetrator's face, clothes, license plate, etc. These mental photographs may be comparable to presenting a real tangible photograph of the event witnessed. However, the memories of those who claim to have superior photographic memories are just as flawed as the memories of individuals who have normal mnemonic abilities. This would affect the validity of testimonies from witnesses with photographic memories. Witnesses who believe that they are able to retrieve an accurate mental photograph will be much more confident in their account of the event and may influence the trial outcome. Accuracy recall of such visual scenes is a controversial issue. In the past, eidetikers were believed to have extremely accurate recall for visual displays, but modern research findings might reveal a different story. Some research demonstrates that eidetic children have greater recall accuracy for visual details compared to non-eidetic children. Other researchers have failed to find any advantage between the two groups. It is also hypothesized that eidetic imagery is not exactly related to memory and improves recall for visual details. If this is true, photographic memory is not particularly useful in the courtroom, which could explain the general failure to detect its existence in adults. Eidetikers cannot produce images of each and every sensory experience on demand. Alternatively, images are created only if the stimulus contains interesting material and a coherent structure. This characteristic critically reduces possible application to criminal justice. Even though there are various thoughts and ideas regarding photographic memory, some people do have exceptional memories, which will help improve the accuracy of eyewitness identification.
The frequency of eidetic imagery is low in adults and shows greatest frequency in early child development. In fact, it is almost non-existent past the age of 7. When procedures are used to classify eidetic memory separate from the characteristic of afterimage and memory image, a small number of children are classified as true eidetikers.
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