Does an eyewitness actually remember what happened?

On Behalf of | Nov 1, 2023 | Criminal Defense |

In many criminal cases, an eyewitness will be brought in to testify about what occurred. They may claim that they saw an assault take place, that they witnessed someone robbing a retail location, that they saw a drug deal occur or something else of this nature. They are usually there to help show the jury that the suspect was a part of the criminal activity that has been alleged.

Oftentimes, an eyewitness can have a significant amount of sway with the jury. They may also sway public opinion. People tend to assume that an eyewitness who seems authentic is telling the truth. However, this is a problematic assumption to make. DNA evidence has allowed some convictions to be overturned. In the majority of these cases, eyewitness misidentification was at least part of the reason for the initial wrongful conviction.

Memory can change with recall

There are a lot of potential reasons that an eyewitness’s testimony could prove unreliable, including mundane things like eyewitnesses having a poor vantage point or weather conditions making it difficult to see. In a lot of cases, an eyewitness does think that they are telling the truth, even if they aren’t.

But one of the biggest problems is that people’s memories change every time they recall them. Someone who is testifying in a criminal case may have to tell their story numerous times, and they may spend even more time thinking about it and recalling those events on their own.

The recall process works similarly to the telephone game that children play. A certain phrase is relayed from one person to the next, and it often changes significantly by the time it gets to the end of the line. Memory is the same in that it can change just slightly each time it is recalled. By the time that eyewitness gives their testimony in court, they may honestly think that they “remember” something that isn’t accurate at all.

Because of the danger of misidentification and false convictions, it’s quite important for all those who are facing criminal charges to understand their legal defense options, perhaps especially if the state’s case hinges on an eyewitness’s account of events.