How Reliable is Eyewitness Testimony in Court?

A reportedly upstanding member of the community swears they saw you commit a crime. How can you possibly defend yourself against an eyewitness account? Of course, any criminal charge is serious business; eyewitness testimony against you is never a good thing. The fact is, however, that eyewitness testimony may not be as iron-clad as you would imagine. A good defense attorney knows that there is a lot of research repudiating the trustworthiness of such testimony. 

Can Eyewitness Testimony be Trusted?

Multiple studies over recent decades have revealed that the accuracy of eyewitness testimony in criminal trials leaves a lot to be desired. Regardless of how confident a given witness is, mistakes occur; it is just the nature of memory in human beings. Moreover, visual perceptions, when combined with memory, combine to make this type of testimony one of the very least reliable!  The truth is that a significant number of wrongful convictions—proven to be erroneous through DNA and other evidence after the fact—were based primarily on eyewitness testimony. In one study, researchers discovered that over 70% of overturned convictions were originally based on eyewitness testimony, and in over 30% of those cases, there were multiple eyewitnesses whose testimony was demonstrably wrong.

Problems With  Memory

Some may believe that memory is similar to a video recording, but this analogy could not be further from the truth. Remembering, according to renowned researchers, is more analogous to putting the pieces of a puzzle together. As a witness is questioned by law enforcement or attorneys, pieces of actual memories may be inadvertently conflated to match the questioner’s words and information, leading to inaccurate recollections. Myriad other factors can impact memory, including:

  • Minimal time frames in which to witness a crime;
  • A witness’s anxiety during the criminal event or when endeavoring to identify someone;
  • Disguises used by criminals;
  • Weapons wielded at the scene that distracted witnesses;
  • A lack of distinctive visual characteristics in the perpetrator;
  • Inadequate viewing time during the identification process.

The Loftus Study

One study examined memory errors and the conviction with which subjects held to their flawed recollections. For this research. subjects were told three true accounts and one false one about events that had occurred earlier in their lives. Relatives of the subjects provided particulars for the false story in order to make it more credible. About one-third of subjects believed the false event had actually transpired, despite it being wholly fictitious. These individuals honestly believed that they remembered an event that had never actually occurred.

Defending Against Faulty Eyewitness Testimony

We understand that most witnesses have no motivation to incorrectly identify someone in court; they are simply relying on an imprecise memory. At Boertje & Associates, our experienced criminal defense attorneys are all too familiar with the impact that such testimony can have on a jury, and we are prepared to challenge it with vigor. To discuss your criminal case, schedule a confidential consultation in our San Diego office today.

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