Eyewitness Testimony

Eyewitnesses have been a controversial form of legal testimony for several years, and scientists have not been able to come to a conclusive answer — are they reliable? This question has interested me for a long time, between being an avid watcher of Criminal Minds and discussing it briefly in class, I wanted to be knowledgeable in both sides of the argument.

An eyewitness testimony is when a person witnesses a crime and recalls the details for the court at a later date. During their testimony, it is possible that various law enforcement members and attorneys may question them, ask them to describe or identify the perpetrator, and so on. In the beginning of the semester, eyewitness testimonies were mentioned in class, but only because they were claimed to be inaccurate. What are some factors that deem this legal proceeding as unreliable?

The misinformation effect, a memory error caused by exposure to incorrect information between the original event and later memory test, is a common confound in eyewitness testimony. These lapses in memory can range from minuscule details to finite observations that are crucial to the outcome of a prosecution. For example, if a crime occurs and two people witness it, it is likely that they will communicate what they saw to each other while they wait for the authorities to arrive on scene. By doing this, the witnesses reinforce their similar memories for the event, but also force false ones into each other’s memories. False memory also plays a role in why eyewitness testimonies can be considered unreliable. False memories are memories that never actually occurred, but a person can recall them like they really did. Memory biases contribute to the inaccuracy of the testimonies, because it is possible for people to forget events, or mix up important details. Obviously, eyewitness’ testimony can be altered by a variety of different things, even by leading questions, which is why they have been deemed inaccurate and unreliable for the most part.

I find this topic to be interesting because in most legal proceedings, eyewitness testimonies are used. Wrongful convictions are a common consequence of faulty eyewitnesses; they account for at least 75% of DNA exoneration cases — more than any other cause. With so much evidence suggesting that the human memory cannot be trusted to accurately recall events, then why do we continue to use witness testimonies?


1 thought on “Eyewitness Testimony

  1. Daniel

    This is a very good question, and its multi-faceted.

    Legal precedence and several laws, along with the court still going by its “traditional” standards regarding eye-witness testimony is probably several of the reasons. People trust someone that says “I saw this with my own two eyes!” more then someone saying “well we have evidence here” even if the evidence is factually accurate it may cause issues in court if an eyewitness is directly opposed to that evidence… Its happened before, to be fair those kinds of cases almost always hit the appeals court so its sorted out later.

    I think one of the driving points; especially for attorneys is the “believablity” aspect. If you can make a jury believe the testimony of someone? Well that case is as good as one…not matter who’s on the other end. This is why so many are wrongfully imprisoned or charged. This can be as drastic as to not recognizing skin color, or even if the person had hair or not. Things the average person may take for granted as very obvious visual and physical cues can be totally missed once a person becomes an “eyewitness” to a crime, or for a court case.

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