In the criminal justice system, eyewitness testimony is often seen as the most reliable form of evidence. But is it really?
Studies have shown that memory is far from perfect, and even well-meaning witnesses can sometimes give false testimony. So what does this mean for the reliability of eyewitness testimony?
Factors that affect memory
Eyewitness testimony refers to verbal or written testimony offered by someone who has seen an event occur. In criminal proceedings, eyewitness testimony is considered evidence when combined with other forms, such as physical or circumstantial evidence. A first-hand witness account often becomes key evidence in trials, enabling a jury to make decisions based on what they are told.
However, research calls into question the importance of an eyewitness account. Environmental elements such as distance, lighting and surroundings affect the accuracy of the information. Other factors include:
- Cognitive interference
- Stress and trauma
- Racial bias
- Media coverage
- Investigator bias
Furthermore, human memories fade and change over time, leading to inaccuracies when recalling particular events. While the witness truly believes what they remember is factual, it might not be the case.
Eyewitness testimony can have a powerful impact on the criminal justice system, which is why it is so often used. Unfortunately, due to its unreliability, it can lead to false criminal convictions. Having a good defense strategy is critical for any defendant facing a criminal trial. To effectively defend oneself against this kind of evidence, one must be familiar with the nuances of human memory and its variable accuracy. By questioning the validity of an eyewitness account, one may be able to avoid a false conviction.