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Are eyewitness reports reliable?

On Behalf of | Sep 27, 2023 | Criminal Defense

Each year, many people are convicted because of eyewitness testimony. Or, in the case of those who take a plea deal because of the threat of that testimony.

While many convictions based on eyewitness accounts are valid, some definitely are not. Reports show that numerous people have been wrongly imprisoned due to inaccurate eyewitnesses.

Does that mean eyewitnesses set out to send the wrong person down?

That’s probably true in a few cases. Someone with a grudge might consider it their best way of getting even. Or, someone who committed a crime may think testifying against someone else is the best way to get themself off the hook.

The error is often inadvertent

Most people have poor memories. They can remember certain things but entirely forget others, such as their mom’s birthday, where they parked their car or the name of the approaching person they’ve met before.

So, it is unreasonable to blindly trust in people’s ability to recall events related to a crime. Memories are malleable and can change based on the stories we tell ourselves and the comments we hear from other people.

Imagine someone did witness a crime, but it did not strike them as suspicious at the time. They might feel bad about it afterward, thinking they could have intervened. When they learn the police are looking for someone matching a specific description, they may convince themselves they saw that person, even if the police description is entirely wrong. 

So the erroneous police description of a tall black male becomes reinforced by the eyewitness who swears that is what they saw. Even though what they actually saw was an average-height white female whose face they could not distinguish due to it being dark and them wearing a hoodie.

If an eyewitness wrongly accuses you of a crime, you’ll need to learn how to challenge their version of events.