Eyewitness testimony plays a key role in many criminal investigations and court proceedings. However, eyewitness testimony is often inaccurate due to various factors.
Understanding the factors that contribute to inaccuracies in eyewitness testimony helps strengthen the justice system. It also helps the system avoid wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice.
Memory and recall limitations
Human memory is a complex and fallible system, prone to several limitations. When witnesses recall events, a range of factors can influence their memories. For example, high-stress situations can impair memory recall and make it difficult for witnesses to provide accurate accounts of events.
In cases involving weapons, witnesses tend to focus on the weapon itself rather than the perpetrator’s features. This can lead to incomplete descriptions. Witnesses may also receive misleading information or suggestions that alter their recollections.
Cross-racial identification bias
Another significant challenge in eyewitness testimony is the cross-racial identification bias. Studies show that people are generally better at recognizing faces from their own racial or ethnic group. This contributes to many wrongful convictions.
Line and photo array biases
The manner in which witnesses view suspects can also introduce bias. Lineup administrators can influence witnesses by providing subtle cues or pressuring them to make identifications. The use of photo arrays with only one suspect who matches the witness’s description can also lead to misidentifications.
Witnesses may also experience confirmation bias, a tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. This bias can lead witnesses to choose a suspect from a lineup, even if the actual perpetrator is not present.
Per the Constitutional Rights Foundation, mistaken eyewitness accounts contribute to about half of all wrongful convictions. By acknowledging the limitations of eyewitness accounts, the legal system can work toward more reliable and fair outcomes in criminal cases.