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The inherent flaws in eyewitness testimony

The increased sophistication of DNA technology in recent years has affirmed what many defense attorneys and criminal defendants have suspected for years: eyewitness testimony is a flawed form of evidence. In fact, in 70 percent of cases where DNA evidence exonerated individuals who had been wrongly convicted, there had been eyewitness misidentification.

Nonetheless, eyewitness accounts continue to be used in many trials around the country. In today’s article, we examine why this practice is ineffective:

  • Cross-racial identification: Studies have shown that people have problems distinguishing people who are a different race from their own.
  • Situation: Certain context-specific factors—such as the distance between the witness and the criminal or the lighting at the scene—can affect visual accuracy.
  • Focus: During a highly stressful or traumatic event, we tend to focus on the one object we perceive to be the most threatening. If an intruder enters an individual’s house pointing a gun at them, that person will likely focus most of their attention on the gun. They may get a sense of the perpetrator’s general size and build, but they won’t absorb many of the individual’s details.
  • Helpfulness: Witnesses of crimes have a desire to be helpful. If, during a police interview, they’re unsure of an answer, they may be more likely to agree to police suggestions—which may give undue validation to their suspicions regarding the perpetrator.
  • Incomplete memory: Our brain doesn’t recognize the difference between a fragmented memory and a complete one. If we are present during an event but only pay attention to certain aspects of it, our brain will fill in the blanks to create a full, seamless memory. So, for example, if you’re at a party and hear someone yell, “he’s got a knife!”, your brain could make you think you saw someone holding a knife, when in fact your view of the scene was obstructed.

The above factors pose real problems in the reliability of eye witness testimony. If you’ve been wrongly accused of a crime with an eyewitness, talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney who can effectively discredit such evidence.

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