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Why do courts trust eyewitness testimony?

Criminal investigators love a good witness. A supposedly impartial third-party observer can tell the court exactly what happened.

This may work well in theory, but several real cases show that their memory and ability to understand the situation is not always correct. Courts and police must be careful to avoid mistaken testimonies.

Witnesses are not always accurate

Unless a witness has a strong personal bias against the defendant, most people try to give their testimony honestly. Even with the best intentions, however, they might mistake important details of the event. They might even identify the wrong person.

Many psychologists believe that a person’s memory can be accurate under the right circumstances, but external factors could still overwrite their memory. Pressure from police in a line-up, for example, can be enough to sway a witness to point someone out as a main suspect despite their own uncertainty.

Details from the event itself often affects how a witness testifies. If they only had a glimpse of the suspect or if they couldn’t see clearly in the dark, for example, their brain may not have been able to process the suspect’s unique traits correctly. A witness’ own trauma can also affect what they remember from a situation.

Investigators must interview witnesses properly

In a courtroom, investigators may persuade a witness to lie. Asking leading questions is one way that investigators could intentionally or accidentally contaminate their testimony. Leading questions are questions that subtly implies that the witness should answer a certain way. Usually, the person asking a leading question is looking for a specific answer that they want to hear rather than the truth.

The average person might not be able to detect when investigators may be affecting someone’s testimony. However, criminal defense attorneys have experience with double-checking that prosecutors are keeping a trial fair. Even if someone is accused of a crime, they should never face punishment if the evidence against them isn’t accurate.

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Thomas G. Fallis, P.A.
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