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Attorney Katherine A. Gonos
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Why eyewitness testimony is not always reliable

On Behalf of | Feb 1, 2024 | Violent Crimes |

Eyewitness testimony is an important part of many legal proceedings. Jurors often consider it to be one of the most convincing forms of evidence. However, human memory has limitations.

Understanding why eyewitness testimony can be unreliable helps ensure fair legal outcomes. It also helps prevent wrongful convictions that put the wrong people behind bars.

Memory distortion and reconstruction

Human memory is not like a video recording that captures and preserves events. Instead, memories are susceptible to distortion. Certain factors can influence memory. Stress, leading questions and post-event information are among them. Eyewitnesses subjected to these influences may alter their memories over time. This can lead to inaccuracies in their testimony.

Mistaken identification

Another factor contributing to the unreliability of eyewitness testimony is mistaken identification. In high-stress situations, witnesses may experience heightened emotions and cognitive biases. This can affect their ability to identify suspects. Factors such as poor lighting and distance can complicate identification efforts. The presence of weapons can do the same. In doing so, they can increase the likelihood of misidentifications.

Suggestive questioning and lineup procedures

How witnesses undergo questioning also influences the reliability of their testimony. Suggestive questioning can plant false memories. They can also lead witnesses to provide false information. Lineup procedures that lack proper controls can also cause misidentifications and wrongful convictions. Biased instructions can also influence the accuracy of eyewitness accounts.

Many people place considerable faith in the reliability of eyewitness accounts. However, human memory is malleable. Incorporating corroborating evidence can help reduce these errors. So, too, can educating jurors about the fallibility of human memory. Taking these steps can also help promote fairness and accuracy within the justice system.