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Is eyewitness testimony reliable?

On Behalf of | Nov 14, 2023 | Criminal Defense

Oftentimes in movies and court dramas, one side or the other may bring in an expert witness who will testify, and the audience is supposed to understand that this person is providing a trustworthy account. In real life, juries may also be swayed by the testimony of an eyewitness, especially if the eyewitness seems to be honest and has no obvious reason to lie – perhaps because they were a random bystander who witnessed a crime, but who didn’t know any of the individuals involved. Is eyewitness testimony actually as reliable as people may assume?

It is not. Researchers have looked at the cases where DNA evidence led to overturned convictions. In the majority of these cases, they found that there was an inaccurate eyewitness testimony that swayed the wrongful outcome in question. This suggests that it is one of the worst types of evidence that can be used, as eyewitnesses often get it wrong. Below are some reasons why this happens.

Memory issues

In many cases, a witness just doesn’t remember what happened. Maybe there are gaps in their recollection, or they are missing key details. Or, perhaps their memory has changed, as it can do every time they recall the event and tell the story. Memory is far more malleable than people believe; it has been compared to the telephone game that children play, distorting a message each time it is relayed. Even a memory that feels authentic could be fake, altered or contrived, intentionally or unintentionally.

Observation issues

Additionally, there are cases where an eyewitness believes that they observed something that didn’t happen. Maybe the weather conditions made visibility difficult. Maybe the eyewitness was a long way away, so they couldn’t make out details like facial features or the color of someone’s shirt. Maybe the witness has eyesight issues, such as needing to wear glasses that they forgot on that day. The eyewitness honestly thinks they know what they saw, but they’re wrong. An unexpected event happened quickly and in a way that was difficult for them to observe, and their inaccurate testimony is an honest mistake.

What options are there?

For those facing charges, it is certainly frustrating when an eyewitness gives an inaccurate account that could lead to a conviction. Fortunately, there are defense options that these individuals can explore. It’s very important for them to understand exactly how the legal process works, what steps they should take and what criminal defense options they have at their disposal. Seeking legal guidance as proactively as possible is the best way to counter the risk of potentially damaging eyewitness testimony.