Eyewitness testimony is persuasive but not always reliable

This article looks at recent studies that show just how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be.

In the courtroom, few pieces of evidence can hold so much sway over a jury as eyewitness testimony can. However, a growing number of scientists, psychologists, and legal experts are questioning the value of eyewitness testimony following a growing body of evidence showing that such testimony may be flawed more often than most people realize. Despite being used in quite a few criminal cases, eyewitness testimony has recently come under the spotlight for how many times it has resulted in wrongful convictions. The problem, experts say, is that memory, like crime scenes, can be easily tampered with and manipulated.

How memories can be manipulated

As Newsweek reports, one recent study has shown just how susceptible people's memories are to suggestion and manipulation. That study involved 861 U.S. soldiers who went through abusive interrogations as part of their training at a survival school. After the interrogation was over, interviewers showed the soldiers images of a person who looked nothing like the actual interrogator. However, the interviewer implied that the pictures were of the interrogator and, when asked, 84 percent of the soldiers identified the pictures as being of their interrogator.

One of the problems with eyewitness testimony is that witnesses are being asked to recall memories from what is often a stressful and traumatic event. That's a problem because stress is one factor that can make it more difficult to recall memories correctly. A weapon, for example, can distract witnesses, leading to a heightened chance of misidentification.

The problem with misidentification

While it has long been known that people can have false memories and that misidentifications are possible, the extent of the problem has only really become apparent with the advent of DNA testing. As Scientific American reports, 73 percent of convictions that have been overturned by DNA testing since the 1990s originally relied primarily on eyewitness testimony.

Such alarming figures have led to calls for changes in both how investigations and trials are conducted. For example, one suggestion has been to ensure that during a police lineup, when a witness is asked to identify the perpetrator, that no officers who are directly involved in the investigation are present so as to ensure that they are not unconsciously influencing the witness. Furthermore, legal and scientific experts say that courts should be more open to having expert witnesses, such as scientists and psychologists, who can provide jurors with information about how memory can be manipulated and changed.

Criminal defense law

Being charged with a criminal offense is a frightening experience, but, as the above article suggests, even the most "slam dunk" evidence can likely be challenged. For those who are facing criminal charges, no matter how serious they may be, it is important to talk to a criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can help clients going through this stressful time understand what legal options are available and how they can best protect their rights.

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North Carolina vs. M.W.
Charge: Charge: Robbery with A Dangerous Weapon (4 Counts), First Degree Burglary, Conspiracy to Commit Robbery with A Dangerous Weapon
Facing: 12 - 17 years in prison
Result: Dismissed

An incarcerated defendant accused our client of participating in the robbery of a group of youth at a party. We were able to raise doubt as to the credibility of this individual. In the end, the prosecutor dismissed these charges, citing a lack of evidence.