Why eyewitness testimony is not always very reliable

This article looks at why eyewitness testimony can be unreliable and what should be done about it.

Eyewitness testimony plays a big role in the justice system. Particularly in criminal cases, eyewitnesses can have a major impact on the outcome of a trial. Jurors and even judges are susceptible to placing great faith in the reliability of an eyewitness' recollection of events and many convictions have depended heavily on an eyewitness' memory. However, a growing body of scientific evidence is showing that eyewitness testimony is not always as reliable as it appears and that those involved in the justice system need to be careful about attaching too much weight to such testimony.

How reliable is memory?

As CNN reports, studies in recent years have revealed that memory is less "like a tape recorder" and "more like a Wikipedia page." In other words, memories are not something that are simply "played back," but that rather they change over time and get continuously rebuilt based on new information and biases.

For example, one researcher asked one group of study participants who had been involved in traffic accidents if they saw "the broken headlight" at the scene of the accident. That researcher then asked another group if they saw "a broken headlight." The group that was asked about "the broken headlight" was more likely to remember seeing a broken headlight. In fact, in none of the cases did a broken headlight exist. That study shows just how unreliable memories can be.

Eyewitness testimony

As the Washington Post reports, the unreliability of memory can have significant implications in criminal cases. The Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing to help free the wrongfully convicted, says that 73 percent of wrongful convictions have been at least partially the result of misidentifications by eyewitnesses.

Police rely heavily on eyewitnesses, which is perhaps why it has been so difficult for researchers to get enough attention paid to the problems inherent in eyewitness testimony. However, there are relatively simple steps police and the justice system overall could take to prevent misidentifications. A live or photo lineup, for example, could be conducted by an officer who does not actually know the identity of a suspect, thus preventing that officer from inadvertently providing the witness with unspoken cues about who the suspect is. Additionally, jurors could be made aware of the limitations of eyewitness testimony, particularly in criminal cases. Unfortunately, such safeguards have been implemented in only a few jurisdictions across the country.

Criminal defense

Being charged with a criminal offense is serious and can lead to prison time, fines, and a criminal record. Furthermore, the consequences could last for years afterwards and could have an impact on employment, housing, and even child custody decisions. Because the stakes are so high, anybody charged with a criminal offense needs to talk to an attorney immediately. A dedicated attorney can ensure that those accused of a crime have somebody fighting vigorously to uphold their rights and freedoms.