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Is eyewitness testimony reliable?

On Behalf of | Nov 5, 2023 | Criminal Defense

Humans like to believe they have near-perfect recall and infallible memories. The truth is that memories are subject to multiple influences.

So, how does that affect statements from eyewitnesses?

Hollywood versus reality

The pivotal scene in many courtroom dramas is when the person on the stand points to the defendant as the guilty party or describes a crime they witnessed. In real courtrooms, eyewitness testimony can play a significant part in convicting a person of a crime, even if other evidence states otherwise.

However, research has shown that our memories are not like a playback on a VCR and are influenced by several factors, including:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Power of suggestion
  • Cross-race effect (individuals are more likely to misidentify individuals of a different race)
  • Substance use
  • Lack of sleep 
  • Age
  • Elapsed time since the event
  • Weapon focus
  • False memories
  • Other distractions occurring at the time of the event

In addition to imperfect recall, there are other problems with an eyewitness, such as the lighting, distance, and angle at which they viewed the event.

Eyewitness testimony is considered compelling evidence, but its unreliability comes with serious consequences. Unfortunately, over 69% of 375 wrongful convictions were based on eyewitness testimony. These innocent people suffered years of incarceration until DNA or other evidence exonerated them.

While many prosecutors place emphasis on someone’s first-person account of the event, a good defense strategy will challenge the eyewitness’s perception and the reliability of their memory. They can also challenge line-up procedures that are improperly conducted. These strategies can help ensure jurors can critically evaluate the validity of the testimony and secure the best possible outcome for the defendant.