How Accurate Is Eyewitness Testimony

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More and more we are seeing cases in the news that people are being exonerated after being falsely accused of a crime. Unfortunately, most of the cases involve DNA or other evidence finally being reviewed years after a conviction. There are now hundreds of inmates on death row who claim DNA tests or review of evidence would show they were not guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted. Logic suggests that untold numbers of additional innocent people have been punished for crimes they did not commit. In virtually every recent case in which individuals have been exonerated, DNA matter from the crime scene was available for testing, and these tests have proved that the convicted person is innocent.

Eyewitness Testimony
The bedrock of the American judicial process is the honesty of witnesses in trial. Eyewitness testimony can make a deep impression on a jury, which is often exclusively assigned the role of sorting out credibility issues and making judgments about the truth of witness statements.

In the U.S., there is the possibility of over 5,000 wrongful convictions each year because of mistaken eyewitness identifications. The continuous flow of media stories that tell of innocent people being incarcerated should serve as a signal to us that the human identification process is rife with a large number of error risks. These risks have been largely supported by research. Unfortunately, a jury rarely hears of the risks; therefore, eyewitness testimony remains a much-used and much-trusted process by those who are uninformed -- many times, lawfully uninformed. In cases in which eyewitness testimony is used, more often than not, an expert will not be allowed to testify to the faults of eyewitness identification. Thus, the uninformed stay blissfully ignorant of the inherent risks involved in eyewitness identification testimony. Too often, these blissfully ignorant people make up a jury of our peers. (McAtlin, 1999).

According to McAtlin, there are three parts of an eyewitness testimony: (1) Witnessing a crime – as a victim or a bystander – involves watching the event while it is happening. (2) The witness must memorize the details of the occurrence. (3) The witness must be able to accurately recall and communicate what he or she saw.

Studies of wrongful conviction cases have concluded that erroneous eyewitness identifications are by far the leading cause of convicting the innocent. Several studies have been conducted on human memory and on subjects’ propensity to remember erroneously events and details that did not occur. When human beings try to acquire, retain and retrieve information with any clarity, suppositional influences and common human failures profoundly limit them. The law can regulate some of these human limitations -- others are unavoidable. The "unavoidable" ones can make eyewitness testimony devastating in the courtroom and can lead to wrongful convictions. Unfortunately, memories are not indelibly stamped onto a "brain video cassette tape." An event stored in the human memory undergoes constant change. Some details may be altered when new or different information about the event is added to the existing memory. Some details are simply forgotten and normal memory loss occurs continually. Even so, witnesses often become more confident in the correctness of their memories over time. The original memory has faded and has been replaced with new information. This new information has replaced the original memory because the natural process of memory deterioration has persisted. Furthermore, individual eyewitnesses vary widely in infallibility and reasoning. . (McAtlin, 1999).

Studies of wrongful conviction cases have concluded that erroneous eyewitness identifications are by far the leading cause of convicting the innocent. For example, the Innocence Project of Cardozo School of Law reports that of the first 130 exonerations, 101 (or 77.8 percent) involved mistaken identifications. But...
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