Eyewitness testimony can be the deciding factor in major criminal cases. Juries can put heavy stock into eyewitness accounts, and these accounts can swing a case. These were people who saw the crime take place, and identify who committed it.
However, evidence is mounting that eyewitness accounts aren’t as accurate as many believe. Here’s why:
Unintentional influences on memory
Research has shown that people’s memories can be influenced by many factors. Major factors, like what someone does for a living or how old they are at the time of the event, play a big role in memory.
However, even smaller things can influence a witness to remember things a certain way. Factors like how a question is phrased or who asks it can alter a witness’s testimony.
This influence can affect what an eyewitness thinks they saw at a crime scene. Someone’s testimony may change simply by the way law enforcement asked questions. It’s unfair, to say the least.
In an example from Popular Science, people watched video of a car accident. Researches then asked about the car accident. When the researcher used the word “smashed”, subjects guessed the cars were traveling seven miles per hour faster than when using neutral language.
It’s easy to see how leading questions from a prosecutor could create false testimony.
Furthermore, most people have trouble distinguishing people without unique characteristics. Witnesses can struggle to identify an individual without unique tattoos or other marks.
Too often, poor recollection by a witness leads to wrongfully accused, or worse, convicted individuals.
Adding details later
Another aspect that can skew someone’s recollection is learning specific details later. If someone watched a crime take place, and then later was told that the suspect drove a black car, they may fold that information into their memory.
It happens in many different ways. Witnesses may see details reported in the news, speak to other witnesses or even talk themselves into incorrect versions of the event.
This can have a ripple effect, as a person can unintentionally corroborate a false piece of information because he or she heard it stated as fact.
This can lead to a testimony that includes details he or she may not actually remember.
Fighting false memories
Altered memories or unintentionally false testimony is just one way someone can be wrongfully accused of a crime. All testimony should be taken with this potentially compromising information in mind.
If you’ve been found guilty of a crime you did not commit, there’s hope. A skilled attorney can help you work on a strategy for fighting false charges.