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Is eyewitness testimony always reliable evidence?

If you have been charged with a criminal offense in Pennsylvania, or elsewhere, then you know that your arrest may have been based on eyewitness testimony. Identifications and testimony given by eyewitnesses have long been considered one of the most reliable types of evidence. More and more, however, it has been shown that eyewitness recall might not be as accurate as it was once thought to be. In fact, Science magazine reports that eyewitness testimony was the basis for approximately 75 percent of wrongful convictions for murder and rape.

It is a common misconception that the human mind recalls memories like a video recorder replaying recorded events. Rather, remembering events is more like putting the pieces of a puzzle together, according to Scientific American, which can lead to eyewitness misidentifications. Consequently, there are numerous factors, which may impact how a person recalls events that they witnessed. Some of the most common factors that may affect the accuracy of eyewitness identifications include the following:

  • Extreme stress during the alleged crime, or when the witnesses are making their identifications
  • Short viewing times during identification procedures
  • The suspect does not have any distinctive characteristics
  • The crime’s perpetrator used a disguise
  • Racial differences between the witness and the suspect

Additionally, questioning by law enforcement officers or lawyers may alter people’s memories, which may result in inaccurate recall. The procedures that the authorities use to draw information from witnesses, such as lineups, may also lead to misidentifications when proper protocols are not followed.

This post has provided an overview of the factors that may affect the reliability of witness testimony. However, you should keep in mind that each case and person are unique. Therefore, you should consider this post only as general information, and not take it as legal advice.

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Gregory R. Gifford
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