Eyewitnesses can make a big impression on judges and juries, largely because they can take people right back to the actual scene of a crime and all that transpired.
However, eyewitness testimony isn’t nearly as ironclad as prosecutors would have people believe. In fact, something known as the “weapons focus effect” can have a tremendous impact on the reliability of what an eyewitness has to say.
Memory is malleable, and the presence of weapons makes it worse
Studies have shown that when a threatening situation involves the use of a weapon, its presence tends to dominate the attention of any witnesses so completely that they “filter out” a lot of other details. This is a survival mechanism: the human brain instinctively prioritizes information that seems relevant to one’s immediate survival.
In essence, an eyewitness may end up focusing so hard on the weapon that was brandished or used that they can recall all kinds of details about it – but not accurately recall any peripheral details (such as what led up to the event, who was actually using the weapon or what happened after). Those details can be critical to a comprehensive understanding of the events.
There’s also a stress response that has to be factored into any situation where a weapon is involved. The stress hormones that the human body produces when someone experiences a traumatic or threatening event can also cause distortions of the memory. The higher the level of stress, the harder it may be for someone to actually recall details of an event with any accuracy.
Couple this with the fact that human memory is very malleable, and it’s easy to see why this is a problem. Every time people revisit a memory in their minds, they can change it in small, subtle ways. Over time, as they repeat a story to police officers, prosecutors and juries, an eyewitness’s recollection of events may become hopelessly distorted.
It’s important for people who are facing serious criminal charges involving weapons to realize that even eyewitness testimony can be challenged. If you’re facing criminal charges for a violent offense, it pays to learn more about different defense angles that can be taken with the assistance of a skilled criminal defense attorney.