Almost everyone is familiar with the courtroom scene in movies and television when an eyewitness identifies the defendant as the person who committed the crime. It’s almost enough to make a person think eyewitness testimony is crucial for a guilty verdict.
In reality, eyewitnesses aren’t the irrefutable proof that Hollywood would have us believe.
The unreliability of memory
We like to believe our memory is like a VCR, playing a perfect recall of our past experiences. That’s not true. In actuality, our memories are influenced by personal biases, emotions and other events.
Our memories change over time, becoming modified, distorted or completely fabricated. Suggestive information and leading questioning can manipulate a person’s memory of an event.
Faulty memories can make eyewitness testimony inaccurate, which has led to multiple wrongful convictions. Even though the witness may have the best intentions and honestly believe their memory is correct, certain elements are leading them to make a mistake, including:
- The stress and trauma surrounding the event
- People are less accurate at identifying individuals of a race different than their own
- The angle at which they viewed the incident
- The witness may have been focused on a specific item, such as a gun, and ignored other details
- As time goes by, memories tend to fade, and accuracy decreases
When faced with eyewitness testimony, there are ways to discredit the testimony without disparaging the witness, such as:
- Challenging the process, such as if police used a line-up or photos for the witness to identify the suspect.
- Hiring an expert on eyewitness memory
- Questioning the witness’s line of sight, the distance from the crime, and other factors that could influence their memory
- Presenting evidence that contradicts the eyewitness account
Every situation is unique. If you are in a position where an eyewitness placed you at a crime scene, it’s crucial that you have a strategic defense to challenge their testimony.