How accurate is eyewitness testimony?

Many people take for granted that eyewitness testimony is factual, truthful and sufficient to make or break the case for the defendant. It may include identification of the suspect or details of the crime scene itself. It may be important in a matter involving an animal - a dog bite case, for example. However, questions surround the accuracy of eyewitness testimony because of the way human memory works. The expertise of the person who interviewed the eyewitness may also be questionable.

Assigning the interview

The person assigned to take the statement of a witness should be well-acquainted with the type of crime involved. Let's say a dog has bitten a delivery man. The dog owner's neighbor provides a statement that she was frightened of the pit bull, calling the dog "very aggressive." The person who interviewed this witness had little knowledge of canine behavior. The word aggressive has many meanings, leaving an opening for the defense to argue that the pit bull was simply an energetic dog that played hard, but was not vicious.

Ripe for research

Research shows that several psychological factors, including anxiety, stress, reconstructive memory and weapon focus, affect eyewitness testimony. The weapon in the dog bite case may have been the animal's teeth; weapons take many forms beside guns and knives. As to memory, it is believed by those who study it that a person's memory works rather like a videotape: The storing of information is likened to a recording and remembering is like the playback. The information is stored in a way that makes the most sense, and the remembering is shaped by personal beliefs and expectations. Throw in the anxiety and stress an eyewitness may have experienced, and the accuracy of the individual's testimony may be in doubt.

How the jury responds

Surveys have shown that juries pay close attention to eyewitnesses and give their testimony considerable weight. An eyewitness account may indeed be accurate, but jurors should be advised to consider the many factors that can bias or skew the account in some way. Studies show that even eyewitnesses who appear highly confident may, in fact, be only slightly more accurate in giving testimony than t hose who seem less sure of their facts.

Understanding the consequences

Attorneys familiar with criminal law are fully aware of the importance of credible eyewitness testimony and would be happy to address any questions you might have about this important aspect of a court case.

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