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Eyewitness testimony doesn’t live up to its hype

| Mar 30, 2021 | Uncategorized

You’ve been hauled into a police station and grilled for hours about a suspected crime. Maybe you’ve even been put through a line-up.

The police detective in charge of the investigation confidently tells you that you “might as well” confess because they have an eyewitness to the crime who says you’re their guy.

You’re not. You know you’re innocent. Is the eyewitness lying? Are the police? Here’s what you need to know.

Memory is flawed and malleable

Police and prosecutors often make a big deal about the presence of an eyewitness to a violent crime, but the reality is that eyewitnesses can be easily confused or misled. In fact, research indicates that eyewitness testimony is actually one of the most unreliable forms of evidence that can ever make it into a courtroom.

The odds are high that the eyewitness isn’t lying (although the police might be). Instead:

  • They may simply not remember the event as clearly as they believe. In violent crimes, studies have shown that witnesses can be particularly prone to what is known as the “weapon focus effect.” Their eyes and minds latch onto the gun or knife and don’t take in much about the user’s actual physical features or other details.
  • They may be unreliable witnesses for some other reason. A witness that is very young, for example, may confuse one person with another simply because they have roughly the same hair color or similar body builds. A witness with mental health issues may be so traumatized by the event they saw that they cannot differentiate between what really happened and what they merely think happened.
  • They may have been influenced by the police into making their identification. Confirmation bias and subtle (if unintentional) clues from the police can sometimes lead a witness into making an identification they wouldn’t have otherwise made. Line-ups are considered especially problematic for this.

So, what can you do when the police insist they have all the evidence they need with their eyewitness?

You call a lawyer. Don’t try to defend yourself, and don’t keep talking. The wisest move you can make is to exercise your right to remain silent and let your attorney do the talking.