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Eyewitness testimony is often wrong

On Behalf of | Apr 23, 2024 | Criminal Defense

People sometimes believe that eyewitness testimony is accurate and believable. The reasoning is often just that the eyewitness does not have a reason to lie about what took place. If someone was making a withdrawal and witnessed the bank robbery, for example, they’re just telling their story about what happened. They have nothing to gain by identifying the wrong person or getting the details wrong.

However, researchers have studied false convictions and they found some very troubling information: In the majority of these cases, inaccurate eyewitness testimony was part of the reason for that conviction. The witness very clearly got it wrong, as the alleged criminal has now been completely exonerated by DNA evidence. So why did the eyewitness make that mistake in the first place?

Memory can change

Often, the problem is that a person’s memory can change without them realizing that it’s happening. They think that the memory is accurate – imagining their own memory like a video recording on their phone – and they believe that the story they’re telling is true. But they are simply wrong.

The best way to think about memory is not like a video recording, but like the telephone game that children sometimes play, passing messages down a line. Typically, a whispered message at the beginning of the line will be much different at the end. Memory works the same way, in the sense that a person‘s memory can be altered or changed every time they bring it up or tell their story. So the eyewitness could have accidentally invented or added new information, leading to the inaccurate identification.

What this means is that it’s very important for criminal defendants to understand all of their legal options, especially when facing compelling eyewitness testimony.