Is eyewitness testimony really accurate?

Many people believe that eyewitness testimony is never wrong but new science shows that memory is far from perfect.

Many investigations conducted by law enforcement in Overland Park rely on the statements of eyewitnesses. Eyewitness testimony is often considered by juries as irrefutable evidence but recent studies and reports indicate the opposite.

False convictions

The Innocence Project reports that over 300 people were convicted for a crime they did not commit. In over 70 percent of those cases, people were found guilty because of eyewitness testimony.

In Kansas, one man sat in prison for six and a half years after he was convicted of aggravated kidnapping and assault, and rape. The man was identified by witnesses, including the victim, even though initially she identified a different man as her assailant. DNA testing showed that he was not the attacker.

Fallibility of human memory

It is easy for people to believe that human memory is like a computer, remembering every detail exactly as the event occurred. Yet according to Science Daily, studies have shown that human memory is not exact and it is not uncommon for memories to be influenced by other sources. For example, people who are trying to recall the face of the person who attacked them, may unconsciously insert the face of someone they saw earlier.

Additionally, it has been shown that the more times a person recalls the events of the story, the more confident that person becomes over the accuracy of the details. Other studies have shown that personal prejudices can also play a role in what the brain recalls. If a person is attacked by someone from another race, the victim may swear that the person is Mexican if the victim has an issue with people of that nationality.

System and non-system variables

The American Bar Association points out that eyewitness testimony is influenced by system and non-system variables. System variables involve the direct influence of the legal system and include the following:

  • Lineups conducted by officers who are involved in the investigation
  • Presenting a picture of an alleged suspect that varies in some way from other photographs in the lineup
  • Using more than six photos in a photo identification process
  • Officers telling the witness that the witness did a good job in identification
  • Showing only one possible suspect to the witness

On the other side, people can be influenced by things that are not under the control of investigators and these are referred to as non-system variables. These variables may include the presence of a weapon, the amount of lighting in the scene, the level of stress the victim or witness was subjected to and how far the witness was from the event.

Questioning testimony

It is important for people in Kansas who have been charged with a crime to question the validity of any eyewitness testimony that has been gathered against them. It may therefore, be a good idea for them to seek help from a criminal defense attorney. An attorney may be able to look at the variables that played a role in the identification process and successfully challenge the witness' memory of events.