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Christopher Todd Adams

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Why are eyewitnesses so often wrong?

If you face criminal charges due to eyewitness evidence, you might think your defense is over before it started. After all, what could be more convincing to a jury than someone standing up in court and saying that they saw you at the scene of the crime? However, eyewitnesses are not as reliable as you might think. There is ample opportunity for your defense attorney to challenge their account.

What affects eyewitness reliability?

Due to the number of innocent people convicted on the basis of eyewitness evidence, there have been various attempts to understand more about why people make these mistakes. These are some of the factors research has found can distort eyewitness reliability:

  • Stress or anxiety: One study found that people who watched a film of a violent assault remembered 40 things less than those shown a less stressful version of the event. However, other studies disagree with the findings that stress reduces the ability to recall.
  • Memories are not accurate snapshots: Think about a moment you shared with friends last week. Each of you will remember it differently. Our memories interpret the information we receive in a way that makes sense to us individually. We associate the information with things we already know to store it securely. So our brain changes what we remember.
  • Distracted by a weapon: Researchers found that where a gun was present, people focused on that. They paid less attention to other details, such as who was holding the gun.
  • Leading questions: How someone questions an eyewitness can make a massive difference to the answers the witness gives. Whether done intentionally or subconsciously, questioners such as police officers and prosecutors can influence an eyewitness toward a specific outcome.

Questioning an eyewitness testimony is one of many tactics a defense attorney could use if someone accuses you of assault or another crime. No conviction is ever guaranteed.

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