The Defense Never Rests

Why eyewitness accounts are unreliable

On Behalf of | Nov 10, 2023 | Criminal Law

Eyewitness accounts may serve as powerful evidence in criminal investigations. Often, eyewitness testimony helps shape the course of legal proceedings. However, these accounts are not always accurate. When misidentifications occur, they can have far-reaching consequences. They may even put the wrong people behind bars.

Understanding the factors that may lead to mistaken eyewitness accounts helps reduce their impact. It also helps create a more equitable and reliable justice system.

Memory fragility

Human memory is not flawless. On the contrary, it is susceptible to distortion. Eyewitnesses often recall events based on their interpretation and emotional state. External influences may also come into play. Yet, doing so introduces the potential for inaccuracies. Memory fragility becomes especially likely during high-stress situations, such as crimes. In these scenarios, emotional intensity can impact the encoding and retrieval of information. This can contribute to misidentifications.

External factors

External factors, like suggestive law enforcement procedures, shape many eyewitness accounts. Media influence is another example.  Certain law enforcement practices can also influence witnesses to identify a certain suspect. Media coverage can also implant false memories or shape perceptions. This can further contribute to mistaken eyewitness identifications.

Cross-racial identification challenges

Many individuals struggle to identify people of other races. Cross-racial identification challenges are common in legal proceedings. They highlight the role of familiarity and exposure in eyewitness accuracy. Authorities also must consider potential biases that may affect the reliability of identifications.

Per Teach Democracy, mistaken eyewitness accounts contribute to half of all wrongful convictions. Acknowledging the limitations of this evidence helps prevent misidentifications from happening. It also helps reduce the damage to lives that results from them.