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How accurate is eyewitness testimony?

| April 20, 2021 

Criminal defendants in Washington know that it is not a good sign when an eyewitness points to them from the witness stand. Eyewitness testimony is among the most convincing pieces of evidence delivered at a criminal trial. However, more legal professionals are speaking out about the potential inaccuracies that can exist with eyewitness testimony.

The problem with eyewitness testimony

Starting in the 1980s, the ability to analyze DNA provided the path to freedom for people wrongly convicted of a crime. The Innocence Project is a non-profit group comprised of criminal defense attorneys and law students. The group works to free falsely accused inmates. A study from the project revealed that 71% of the 358 former death row inmates liberated because of DNA analysis received their original conviction based on eyewitness testimony. The average time spent in prison for the 358 former death row inmates was 14 years.

Multiple tests show that eyewitness testimony is subject to fallacies even when the witness intended to be completely honest. The problem is that human memory does not act as a video recorder that can perfectly duplicate an event.

The myth continues

The confidence many people put in the words of an eyewitness is strong despite the wrongful convictions resulting from this testimony. Popular media is partly responsible for this problem. Most people have seen a dramatic scene in a movie or television show that includes a witness with a photographic memory detailing the crime they witnessed before pointing to the perpetrator in the courtroom.

Eyewitnesses will often show the same confidence in their words in real life. This confidence can lead the jury to accept their account of a crime even when it is not accurate.

Individuals accused of a criminal offense will need to defend themselves from the potential consequences. An attorney may prove helpful when it is time to prepare a defense.

Further Reading

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