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Why do eyewitness testimonies lead to wrongful convictions?

On Behalf of | Dec 13, 2023 | Criminal Defense |

Recalling the exact details of an entire event is nearly impossible because of the malleability of human memory. People forget things, which is a known fact. Eyewitnesses provide compelling and credible testimonies because they believe their account of the crime is true.

Unfortunately, factors like stored extraneous and post-event information affect their ability to remember things accurately. Imagine the implications this could have in a criminal investigation. Eyewitnesses could and historically have sent innocent people to jail because of their subjective and flawed memory. The issue is not exclusive to Georgia. It is a problem nationwide.

The underlying dynamics of eyewitness error

Witnesses possess extraneous information that can influence their account of a crime. These are things they remember or know to be true based on past experiences and events that are unrelated to the event they are supposed to recall. They might have a preconceived notion of how a criminal should look and select the wrong person out of a standard police lineup. However, even newly introduced information can impact the human memory.

Prosecutors and police officers will ask eyewitnesses certain questions. Their words can also paint a different picture in the eyewitness’s mind. They may ask if the suspect used a gun. The witness, who never even saw a weapon, might suddenly believe they did see one. Post-event information is information the witness receives after the event of interest. It can “contribute to the reconfiguration of the relevant memories” and alter the entire eyewitness account, making it more cohesive and intelligible, albeit subjective and biased.

Realizing the fallibility of human memory

Law enforcement, attorneys, judges, and jurors should be aware of the fallibility of human memory and understand how the influence of post-event information can shape cognition. They should not immediately consider an eyewitness testimony as fact without objective evidence to back it up.

Eyewitness testimonies play a pivotal role in convicting a criminal, but it does not change the fact that they are still human and prone to error. By understanding the complex processes involved in memory and the potential influence of post-event information, the criminal justice system could be fairer and more accurate.