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Is eyewitness testimony reliable?

On Behalf of | Dec 5, 2022 | Criminal Defense

When building a criminal case, police officers and prosecutors often rely on eyewitness testimony to prove the guilt of a crime. Over the last few decades, scientists and researchers have come to believe that eyewitness testimony may not be as accurate as previously believed.

Many see memory as a type of recorder, where events play back exactly as they happened, but scientists believe this is not entirely accurate. Brains hold on to certain important memories, but those that happen between those peaks are often vague and indefinite. Because of this, emotion is often used to fill in the blanks when people cannot recall the details of an event.

Eyewitness testimony and wrongful conviction

According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, studies done by prominent universities show that eyewitness testimony accounts were cause for close to 50% of wrongful convictions. Because it is difficult to tell if someone accurately recalls an event, forensic science has become more important in providing solid proof that someone is guilty of a crime.

How does this play out in identifying a suspect?

To avoid these problematic situations in criminal court, scientists say to inform a witness that a line-up or photo spread may not contain the suspect. When using a line-up or photo spread, all participants should look similar. The person conducting the study should have no idea who the suspect is, and that person should avoid prompting statements to the eyewitness.

While this is still not a perfect science, the way law enforcement uses eyewitness testimony can improve with the right information. Because suspect identification is vital in the pursuit of justice, eyewitness testimony should be handled carefully and in an unbiased manner.