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How Reliable is Eyewitness Testimony?

In the past, the outcomes of criminal court cases relied heavily on eyewitness testimony. A lot of credit was given to witnesses who were at the scene of the crime, and their testimony often was a defining point in the courtroom. After all, who would know better than someone who was there?

Recently, though, the reliability of eyewitness testimony has come under fire. In about 75% of criminal cases that have been overturned through DNA testing, eyewitness testimony was contributed or played a significant factor. So why is eyewitness testimony so faulty? It’s really in the psychology of memory.

While it used to be believed that the human mind can record and recall events like a tape recorder, evidence supports that someone’s memories and recollections can be changed or even completely fabricated from suggestive questioning. Instead of asking a question like “How fast was the car going?”, attorneys must ask if the witness could estimate the speed of the vehicle.

Another memory study tested what is called reconstructive memory. Subjects were told a complicated story about Native Americans and then asked to retell the story a few times after some time had passed. Each time the participants retold the story, they unknowingly altered their version. While some facts were left intact, participants would fill in the gaps with false information. These false recollections were purely accidental and came from what psychologists call “schemas”. Schemas are generalizations of the world based on previous experiences. For example, expecting traffic at 9 a.m. Monday through Friday or checking the sell-by date on milk.

Thankfully, changes to eyewitness testimony laws and regulations have been encouraged and integrated by legal professionals across the country who want fair trial procedures.

Carroll Troberman, PLLC will work hard to represent you in criminal court. Contact ustoday for a free consultation.