Why Eyewitness Testimony is Unreliable

Despite many courtroom dramas played out on TV where someone points to a defendant and says, “He did it!” and the jury then proceeds to convict that defendant based on eyewitness testimony, modern scientific research has poked many holes in the reliability of such evidence.

Human beings are not recording machines. We construct and interpret something we see as we see it, and that process continues long after the event is over. Memory is wide open to suggestion from our experiences and other people, and even someone who would stake his life on his memory can be mistaken, through no conscious fault of his own.

Psychologists have long studied the reliability of eyewitness testimony and found several factors that lead to mistaken identification, including:

Stress — When placed into a stressful event like being involved in a crime, most people are unable to correctly identify the perpetrator.

Use of a weapon. Eyewitnesses who are confronted with a weapon tend to focus on the weapon itself instead of the person holding it.

Racial differences. Eyewitnesses who are of a different race than the accused are generally less accurate in their identification. This is true for all racial groups.

Pressure. Eyewitnesses are much more likely to commit errors when they feel pressure to make an identification.

Influence. Eyewitnesses who rehash the scene over and over with others tend to experience alterations in their memory of events so they can agree with others (i.e., law enforcement).

Transference. Eyewitnesses may misidentify a suspect because they have seen him or her somewhere else.

Multiple defendants. If an eyewitness has to identify more than one person involved in a crime, the identification tends to be less accurate.

No matter how convincing an eyewitness may be, a skilled criminal defense attorney will usually be able to mitigate that testimony based on cognitive psychological research that proves the unreliability of eyewitness testimony and the fact that most wrongful convictions are due to mistake eyewitness testimony.

The Cogdell Law Firm is a boutique law firm focusing on large, complex business and criminal financial-related litigation, including white collar criminal defense, securities fraud, health care fraud investigation, criminal appeals and state criminal defense. When results matter most, contact Dan Cogdell at (713) 426-2244 or dan@cogdell-law.com.

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