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Is eyewitness testimony reliable and accurate?

On Behalf of | Nov 27, 2023 | Criminal Law

Eyewitness testimony can be influential in legal proceedings – in that juries tend to take it rather seriously – but its reliability can vary. While eyewitnesses often provide crucial information, it’s essential to consider factors that can affect the accuracy and reliability of their testimony.

Over the past few decades, groups like the Innocence Project have utilized DNA evidence to identify and overturn false convictions. In the majority of the cases that these groups handle, eyewitness testimony is a part of the reason that a false conviction occurred in the first place.

Potential reasons for inaccuracy

When an eyewitness is wrong, even they may not realize it. Here are a few reasons that inaccurate reports occur:

  1. Memory Reconstruction: Human memory is not like a video recording. It is subject to various factors such as perception bias, and reconstruction. Memories can be influenced or altered by post-event information, leading to inaccuracies. Every time that someone recalls a memory, it can be slightly changed or altered – and that’s how they remember it the next time.
  2. Stress and Emotions: High-stress situations, such as witnessing a crime, can impair a person’s ability to accurately recall details. Emotions like fear or anxiety can affect memory encoding and retrieval.
  3. Weapon Focus: During a crime, if a weapon is involved, witnesses may focus more on the weapon than the perpetrator’s identity, leading to a less reliable description of the culprit. The stress and anxiety of facing the weapon gets more focus than remembering what the person looks like.
  4. Time Elapsed: The accuracy of memory decreases over time. Delayed reporting or lengthy periods between the event and testimony can affect the reliability of the eyewitness’s account. Plus, as noted above, thinking about the story or telling it over and over can also change those memories.
  5. External Influences: Factors such as exposure to media coverage, discussion with other witnesses or suggestive comments from law enforcement can inadvertently alter an eyewitness’s memory.

Given these factors, the legal system often considers eyewitness testimony with caution. Courts may weigh other evidence, corroborating testimony, physical evidence and expert opinions alongside eyewitness accounts to assess their reliability.

While eyewitness testimony can be compelling, it’s crucial to recognize its limitations and consider multiple sources of evidence to ensure fair and just legal outcomes. It’s also important for all those who are facing charges to know exactly what legal options they have available to them, especially when they’re defending against alleged eyewitness accounts of their supposed wrongdoing.