Police and prosecutors alike love eyewitness testimony. If someone says they saw you commit a crime, you can bet that authorities are going to train all of their attention on you — maybe to the exclusion of any other evidence that doesn’t fit with that witness’s statements.
Here’s the thing: Eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable. Here are three reasons eyewitness testimony isn’t all that reliable:
1. The interaction between the human eye and the brain is complicated.
What was the lighting like at the time of the crime? How far away was the eyewitness? What else were they doing when the incident started? Was a weapon involved? All of these things (and a lot more) can affect what human beings focus on during an event, what they actually see and what their brains record. Often, there are gaps in what the human eye can see — and the brain takes over and fills in the blanks in order to make sense of a scene. The resulting picture can be distorted.
2. Human memories can change and are open to suggestions.
Studies have shown that memories shift as events are reflected upon and recalled. Important details get lost, and new details can be added. This makes human beings particularly susceptible to suggestions. Police detectives intent on finding evidence of someone’s guilt may purposefully or accidentally try to shape those memories.
3. By the time the trial rolls around, eyewitnesses often just “repeat the story.”
People often try to create a coherent narrative of events in their mind — but that story is influenced by the telling. After an eyewitness has been questioned dozens of times and asked to repeat the same information, they may develop a narrative that feels complete while simultaneously forgetting much of the details. They no longer actively recall the events they saw. They just repeat what they’ve already been saying.
If you’ve been accused of a violent crime and there’s eyewitness testimony, don’t assume that your case is lost. There are many ways for an experienced defense attorney to show that an eyewitness may be wrong.