Dedicated Texas Criminal Defender

Why is eyewitness testimony so unreliable?

On Behalf of | Jan 18, 2024 | Evidence in Criminal Cases

Eyewitness testimony has long been a crucial part of criminal investigations and trials. However, its reliability is often overestimated, which can have significant implications for justice. Various factors influence eyewitness accounts’ accuracy, making it a subject of concern in legal proceedings.

The unreliability of eyewitness testimony stems from the nature of human memory and perception. Understanding these limitations is essential, particularly in criminal justice, where the stakes are high.

How memory works

Human memory isn’t a flawless record of events. It’s reconstructive rather than reproductive, meaning recalling a memory is more like putting together a puzzle than playing a video. This reconstruction process allows for the introduction of inaccuracies. Memories can be influenced by subsequent events or information, altering how an event is remembered.

Misinformation effect

The misinformation effect is a phenomenon where a person’s recall of an event becomes less accurate due to post-event information. For instance, if witnesses are exposed to misleading information after an event, this can become integrated into their memory of the event. Studies have demonstrated that people can be led to remember things that didn’t happen, such as misidentifying signs in a traffic scenario.

Suggestibility and influence

Eyewitness memories are susceptible to suggestibility. How questions are phrased, lineups are conducted, and even casual comments can influence a witness’s recollection. For example, a detective giving nonverbal cues during a lineup may sway the witness’s identification, even subconsciously.

Inaccuracies and confidence

A notable issue with eyewitness testimony is the disconnect between confidence and accuracy. Witnesses who are very confident in their recollection aren’t necessarily more accurate. This confidence can be highly persuasive in a courtroom setting, influencing juries and judges.

Long-term implications

The impact of unreliable eyewitness testimony can be profound. Wrongful convictions based on mistaken identifications contribute to a significant number of injustices. It can lead to individuals being sentenced to incarceration when they are innocent. Working with someone who fully understands how eyewitness testimony can impact a case is critical for any defendant whose case involves this kind of evidence.