Eyewitness testimony is one of the most important parts of a lot of criminal trials involving violence. While those who witness or fall victim to assaults, robberies and other violent crimes definitely have our sympathy, there’s increasing evidence that we shouldn’t really trust their memories.
Why? Well, first of all, 69% of wrongful convictions are directly related to eyewitness misidentification — and 85% of those misidentifications were made by surviving victims.
People don’t purposefully misidentify criminal defendants. Instead, psychologists say that several different things can combine to muddle an eyewitness’s memory and convince them that what they remember is true. Those factors include:
- Leading questions: Investigators looking into a crime may consciously or unconsciously push information about a crime or suspect on eyewitnesses. That information gets embedded in the subconscious of the eyewitness going forward, confusing them.
- Anxiety and stress: It’s hard not to feel anxious and stressed when you are involved in a crime of violence. Some studies have indicated that a person’s ability to accurately recall events tends to decline in direct proportion to the stress involved.
- Reconstructive memory: Over time, memories get recorded in human minds in a way that may be out of sync with actual events. Memories tend to be somewhat vague, with some details “learned” over time — rather than actually recalled.
- Weapon focus: When a weapon is involved in a violent crime, research has determined that people tend to focus so hard on the weapon that other details — like the attacker’s face — get lost.
If you’re charged with a violent crime, it’s good to understand that the phrase “there’s an eyewitness” isn’t necessarily a guarantee of conviction. It’s often possible to prove that the eyewitness doesn’t quite remember things as clearly as they may think.