Let’s say you have been accused of a crime, but you were nowhere near the scene at the time the incident occurred. Even so, the district attorney and police seem quite convinced they have their man. Why? Eyewitness testimony puts you smack dab in the middle of a crime scene. Looks like they have their case locked up, right? Wrong! A good criminal defense lawyer knows better.
The fact of the matter is, eyewitnesses make mistakes quite frequently. According to the Innocence Project, misidentifications contribute to wrongful convictions in over 70% of overturned convictions. Most of the time, faulty memory is the culprit. Studies indicate that false memories are unreliable for a number of reasons:
False memories can be introduced, either intentionally or unwittingly, simply by choosing one word over another when questioning witnesses. In one experiment, witnesses were asked to estimate the speed of a vehicle prior to a collision. Witnesses who were asked the speed of the car prior to the car hitting another vehicle had significantly lower estimates than those asked the speed of the car prior to smashing into another vehicle. Adamant witnesses whose estimates were off by 30 or 40 miles per hour were astonished at their faulty memories.
The human brain naturally relies on “gap filling” to make sense of events. When witnessing a scene, individuals create “facts” to fill in pieces of the event that seem incomplete. For example, on an early morning commute to work, one might hear someone say,”Good,” followed by indistinguishable mumbling. The brain fills in the word, “Morning,” even though that may or may not be the word that was murmured.
Natural distortion occurs in the retelling of any account, depending on what details the speaker emphasizes. What the speaker chooses to focus on may be determined by what it is assumed the listener is most interested in. Details may be lost, or enhanced, depending on the perspective of the speaker.
Bias may impact memory. One experiment established the vulnerability of memory to bias by giving study participants a story to read and asking for responses. Each of three groups was given the same story, but written with three different slants – annoying, neutral, and socially cool. Participant memories of the same events were markedly different.
Difficulties for Witnesses at Crime Scenes
In addition to these factors, eyewitnesses to crimes face other challenges when it comes to memory:
Stress: A factor known to influence human memory, this consideration is amplified when weapons are present during the commission of a crime;
Disguises: Perpetrators who use disguises can confuse the memories of witnesses, who may focus on false features while ignoring minor identifying details;
Brief encounters: Oftentimes witnesses have a matter of seconds to make sense of a confusing scene;
Pressure: High pressure during line-ups or other identification procedures may incline witnesses to choose someone who seems “close enough” to their memory.
If Your Case Hinges on Eyewitness Testimony
Juries tend to put a lot of stock in eyewitness testimony. But at Aiken, O’Halloran and Foley, we know just how damaging faulty memories can be. As your defense team, we will diligently explore every aspect of your case in order to secure the best outcomes possible. Contact us today in Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Punta Gorda or Sarasota for a free, confidential consultation.