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How accurate is eyewitness testimony?

On Behalf of | Dec 5, 2016 | Criminal Defense

Anybody facing criminal charges is entitled to a fair trial, but anybody familiar with the legal system knows it is not always as objective as one might hope. There are many factors that can influence and compromise the fairness of your treatment in the justice system. For people facing charges related to assault, domestic violence, theft or property damage, eyewitness testimony can be a focal point of the trial. It is worth examining, though, just how accurate these accounts might be. The following four issues can seriously threaten their reliability.

Psychological factors

Needless to say, bearing witness to a crime is a stressful event. This is further exacerbated if there are weapons or violence involved. This high level of stress can result in inaccurate memories as psychological distress has a tendency to distort a person’s perception of a situation. A person who presents an eyewitness account is almost certainly susceptible to these factors, and as such, should have her or his credibility thoroughly vetted prior to trial.

Reconstructing memories

In addition to the presence of stress that often distorts testimonies, witnesses are pressured to reconstruct their memories of the event to the highest level of detail possible. Most people do not naturally observe the minutiae required upon recounting an event, but when pressured to do so, many will try and fail. The result is an inaccurate reconstruction that may be more conjecture than actual recollection.

Subconscious bias

It is a known fact that prejudices and racial biases plague the legal system and often work against minorities in their fight for justice. Any racial difference that exists between an eyewitness and the purported perpetrator of a crime, however, is liable to trigger subconscious biases that compromise the accuracy of an account. These biases often contribute to projections that may cause the witness to report elements of the event that did not actually occur.

Undue influence

Perhaps one of the most pernicious factors that can influence an eyewitness’ testimony is the undue influence of law enforcement and other professionals who interact with the witness. By asking leading questions and questioning the witness’ sureness, these professionals can guide the account formed. If they have a suspect in mind, for example, they may mention characteristics of this person and therefore plant the details. Whether or not it is intentional, it compromises the objectivity of the witness.

If you are dealing with charges involving an eyewitness, you deserve an advocate to fight for the fairness of your trial. An attorney can offer this service and help you explore legal options.