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How accurate is eyewitness testimony?

| May 7, 2020 | Criminal Defense |

Many jurors believe that eyewitness testimony is one of the most compelling and convincing types of evidence, but just how accurate is it? As someone facing criminal charges, it may concern you – and it should – to know just how often eyewitness testimony winds up being at least partially inaccurate.

According to the Association for Psychological Science, eyewitness accounts are often fallible, because their basis is in memories that may change or fade over time. These accounts are also subject to bias and vulnerable to distortion, suggesting you would be wise to question any accounts that an eyewitness provides.

Numerical evidence

The criminal justice system developed a better sense of just how inaccurate eyewitness testimony may be when it began relying heavily on DNA testing starting in the 1980s. Since 1989, 358 people who received death sentences underwent exoneration due to DNA testing, and more than 70% of them received convictions initially based on eyewitness accounts.

Those who had their convictions overturned on account of faulty or inaccurate eyewitness misidentifications disproved by DNA evidence still served an average of 14 years behind bars.

Additional factors

A clear disparity exists in terms of the number of minorities mistakenly convicted due to eyewitness accounts compared and the number of Caucasian individuals convicted under the same circumstances. In more than 40% of cases, eyewitnesses made cross-racial misidentifications, and 221 of those 358 exonerated individuals were African American.

Given just how inaccurate eyewitness testimony often is, it is unfortunate that many people believe it to be credible. The memories of someone else, no matter how distorted, have the potential to lead to serious consequences for you.

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