Why are eyewitnesses wrong so often?

Jun 29 2021

When you spend any time looking into cases that were overturned on DNA evidence — that is to say, a person was convicted and then later had that conviction overturned — you’ll find some clear themes. One is that many of these individuals were convicted based on eyewitness testimony.

This illustrates the main problem with eyewitness accounts: They’re often wrong. This does not necessarily mean that the eyewitnesses were lying or intentionally trying to steer the jury the wrong way, though it does happen. Most of the time, they just make mistakes. Why does this happen so often?

Potential reasons for inaccurate accounts

Since eyewitness inaccuracies are the “predominant reason” for convictions of innocent people, it’s important to consider that these inaccuracies could be due to things like:

  • The eyewitness has an inherent bias that they may not even realize themselves.
  • The eyewitness does not have as good of a memory as they believe they do.
  • The eyewitness’s memories have changed over time.
  • The eyewitness was subtly influenced by body language while looking at a lineup.
  • The lighting conditions were poor or the distance was too great.
  • Things happened quickly and the eyewitness was unprepared for it.

The eyewitness was focused on something else more than the person; for instance, it’s common for witnesses to stare at a firearm or another weapon, rather than a person’s face.

By no means are these all of the reasons that witnesses get it wrong, but they do help to show how and why this happens consistently. If you’re facing charges and worried about inaccurate testimonies, you must be well aware of all of the legal options you have.

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