Studies suggest eyewitness testimony is not always reliable

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Eyewitness testimony can prove extremely persuasive at criminal trials and it is not unusual for convictions to largely depend on such testimony. In criminal cases ranging from theft to violent crimes, an eyewitness' testimony may be one of the most incriminating pieces of evidence used against an accused person. However, as Scientific American points out, recent studies suggest eyewitness testimony may be prone to serious problems and that such problems need to be better understood by police, jurors, and judges.

False memories

The rise of DNA testing has led to numerous convictions being overturned in the last few decades, which in turn has raised questions about how such convictions could have happened in the first place. Since the 1990s, 73 percent of 239 overturned convictions in the U.S. were originally based on eyewitness testimony. Faulty eyewitness testimony does not mean, however, that the witnesses themselves were lying. Rather, science is increasingly demonstrating how memories can be changed and manipulated, without witness' themselves being aware of such changes.

Researchers say that memory works more like a puzzle rather than a recording, so that each time a person remembers something he or she is actually reconstructing the memory rather than just playing it back as it happened. Many elements, such as media reports, racial bias, lawyer questioning, and even how police lineups are conducted can influence the accuracy of an eyewitness' testimony, leading them to falsely identify a suspect.

Improving justice

As the Washington Post reports, a number of measures can be taken to reduce the problems associated with eyewitness testimony. Experts suggest police lineups in particular need to change. Lineups should, for example, be videotaped and officers involved in the investigation should not be present when a witness is asked to identify a suspect. Additionally, the witness should be informed that the suspect may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will keep going regardless of whether or not he or she makes a positive identification.

Experts also say that judges and jurors need to be better informed about the problems associated with eyewitness testimony. Many of the problems with eyewitness testimony, after all, can seem counterintuitive and may not be readily apparent. For example, an eyewitness' confidence in his or her testimony has little bearing on whether or not that testimony actually turns out to be accurate. Rather, studies have shown that highly confident witnesses tend to be only a little more accurate than less confident ones.

Criminal defence

Being charged with a criminal offence is a serious matter and it should not be taken lightly. As the above article shows, mounting a strong defence may be the key to ultimately helping the accused maintain his or her rights and freedom. An experienced criminal defence lawyer can help anybody who has been accused of a crime understand what their legal options may be.