When we think of criminal trials, one thing that comes to mind is the use of eyewitness testimony. It may be due to the dramatic part in shows and movies when the witness on the stand points to the defendant as the one who committed the crime.
Eyewitness testimony has long been considered a crucial piece of evidence in many criminal cases. Is eyewitness testimony always reliable?
Our minds are not like video cameras
Research shows that eyewitness testimony is not always reliable. One of the main reasons for this is that human memory is fallible. Even people with the best intentions can misremember events, situations, or even faces.
Several factors can affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimony, including:
- Cross-race identification: Witnesses tend to better identify people of their own race than people of other races. Our brains are better at processing information we are familiar with, including facial features, and we are more likely to misidentify other races.
- Lineups and photo arrays: When a police officer conducts a lineup or photo array, they may inadvertently cue the witness to identify the person they think is the suspect.
- Suggestive questioning: How questions are asked of an eyewitness can impact the accuracy of their memory.
Various things, such as stress, time and distractions, can also influence our memory. Furthermore, our beliefs, desires, and mood can affect our interpretation of events.
This is particularly concerning because innocent people have been convicted based on eyewitness testimony, only to be exonerated years later when more reliable evidence comes to light. A good defense strategy recognizes the fallibility of an eyewitness account and will ensure the availability of more objective forms of evidence, such as DNA or video footage.