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Why eyewitness testimony isn’t all that reliable

On Behalf of | Jan 3, 2023 | Violent crimes

Seeing is believing, right? And the next best thing to seeing something with their own eyes, as far as a jury is concerned, is hearing what an eyewitness saw at the scene of a crime.

At least, that’s what prosecutors want juries and defendants to think – but the reality is that eyewitness testimony isn’t nearly as reliable as many people think.

Witnesses aren’t lying – but they are mistaken

Defense attorneys have long questioned the reliability of many witnesses, for numerous reasons, but it’s only been fairly recently that forensic science has actually shown just how fallible eyewitness testimony can be.

An examination of 358 people who were once sentenced to death for violent crimes and later exonerated through the use of genetic evidence (DNA) found that 71% had been convicted after being misidentified by eyewitnesses.

Were these witnesses lying? While there probably have been times when witnesses have lied under oath, the vast majority are simply doing their best to be truthful. They just simply don’t remember things the way they actually happened.

Scientists say that it’s a fallacy to think of memory as akin to a tape recorder or a video that captures every detail of an event as if on film. In reality, the process of remembering something is very complex, and all kinds of things can interfere with someone’s ability to either form clear memories or accurately recall them. For example:

  • ● Trauma can cause someone to block out or repress key pieces of information
  • ● The presence of a weapon during a crime (the “weapons focus effect”) can distort eyewitness testimony greatly
  • ● Subconscious (or conscious) reinforcement of the “right” memories by the authorities when the witnesses recount events can create a mistaken sense of confidence, cementing a false narrative and memory in their minds
  • In short, eyewitness testimony continues to be a big part of many criminal trials, but not all eyewitnesses are trustworthy. Most probably do believe everything they’re saying – but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
  • A good defense takes every angle into consideration. Expert testimony on the psychology and neurology of memory as well as challenges through forensic evidence can help persuade a jury to see eyewitness testimony as less than absolute.