Eyewitness identification has long been the gold standard in criminal cases. There was even a time – before DNA and other forensic methods –  in which it was one of the only reliable pieces of evidence in a criminal trial.

But in recent decades, we have come to learn that eyewitness identification isn’t always reliable. In fact, witnesses are often flat-out wrong in the cases where the stakes are highest: sex crimes, assault and murder. In today’s post, we’ll discuss some of the problems with eyewitness testimony and why they occur.

Contaminated memories

A recent New York Times article discusses a problem known as “contaminated memories.” The human brain is not like a video camera that records sights and sounds and maintains those recordings with perfect fidelity. Memories change a little bit each time we recall them. And when police are questioning witnesses, they often introduce their own biases into the witness’ minds. Examples include:

  • Showing some of the same pictures numerous times over several photo lineups
  • Asking a witness to pay particular attention to a suspect in a lineup
  • Asking a witness leading questions like “was he carrying a gun?” instead of “did he have a weapon?”
  • Asking witnesses to fill in details with educated guesses rather than just taking the information they originally volunteered

These biasing techniques may not be done on purpose. But law enforcement officers can nonetheless have a huge contaminating effect on witness’ memories.

Confidence is not the same as accuracy

When first interviewed, victims may be completely uncertain about what they saw. But with coaching from police, they could be 100 percent confident that they could name the perpetrator by the time they get to trial. A high level of confidence does not equate to a high level of accuracy, but juries nonetheless find confidence to be very compelling.

Why a good defense attorney is so important

If you’ve been accused of a crime, eyewitness testimony and other well-regarded evidence may be a factor in your case. But rather than taking this evidence for granted, a good defense attorney will challenge it, including challenging the underlying assumptions that such evidence is reliable.

No matter what criminal charges you are facing, please don’t wait to contact an attorney. Your freedom and future may be at stake.