Despite scientific evidence refuting the reliability of eyewitness testimony, a countless number of convictions have rested largely on it. Recent studies have highlighted just how flawed eyewitness identification can be and the reasons behind the inconsistencies.
Science has proven that memory can be affected drastically following a traumatic event. There is even a term for the phenomenon: misinformation effect. Studies have shown that if witnesses are given false information following an event, details of their testimony can be corrupted. The misinformation may not be intentional, but it still happens. The misinformation can be as simple as changing the wording of a question.
The stress of an event also has a direct effect on memory recall. For instance, back in the 1980s, a series of experiments highlighted the differences of eyewitness identification in various scenarios. Customers in a restaurant were asked to identify one customer holding a gun and one customer holding a checkbook. Since witnesses were more likely to focus on the gun, they had more difficulty identifying that subject.
There are certain conditions that could also cause false eyewitness identification. Besides the stress of a crime, factors that come into play include:
- The length of time between witnessing and identification
- The race of the accused perpetrator (if different from the witness)
- Poor vision
- Compromised viewing conditions
The Overstated Role of Eyewitness Identification
The number of wrongful convictions linked to eyewitness identification is staggering. According to the Innocence Project, more than 70 percent of convictions overturned based on DNA analysis were linked to eyewitness identification. Shockingly enough, one-third of these overturned cases had two or more witnesses that provided mistaken testimony.
The bottom line is that the justice system needs a complete overhaul in the way it values eyewitness testimony. The end goal is to see a major reduction in the number of wrongful convictions based off of witness testimony alone. To protect yourself in a criminal case relying on an eyewitness as proof of a crime, always work with an experienced defense attorney.