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What factors can lead to eyewitnesses being wrong?

On Behalf of | May 24, 2024 | Criminal Defense |

Eyewitness testimonies often play a huge role in criminal investigations and court trials. However, research shows that eyewitnesses can sometimes be wrong.

Knowing the factors that lead to these mistakes is important.

Stress and anxiety

High levels of stress and anxiety can impair an eyewitness’s ability to recall events. During a traumatic event, the brain focuses on survival over the precise recording of details.

This heightened state may cause memories to become fragmented or distorted. For instance, an eyewitness to a robbery might focus on the threat posed by the robber rather than the robber’s appearance. As a result, the eyewitness’s description may be incomplete or inaccurate.

Presence of weapons

The presence of a weapon during a crime can also affect the accuracy of an eyewitness’s memory. Known as the “weapon focus effect,” this phenomenon happens when a witness’s attention becomes fixated on the weapon rather than other important details.

This intense focus on the weapon can lead to the witness missing or misremembering other aspects of the event, such as the person’s face or clothing. This means the description provided by the eyewitness may be less reliable.

Leading questions

The way officials phrase questions can significantly influence an eyewitness’s recollection of the crime. Leading questions, which suggest a particular answer, often cause witnesses to remember details they did not actually observe.

For example, if an investigator specifically asks if the person saw a man with a scar on his face, the eyewitness might begin to recall seeing a scar even if there was none. This can lead to the creation of false memories and hurt the accuracy of the testimony.

Passage of time

The accuracy of eyewitness memories can also decline over time. As days, weeks or even months pass, details of the event often become less solid and more open to distortion. Eyewitnesses may fill in gaps in their memory with information from other sources, such as media reports or talks with others. This process, known as memory contamination, can hurt their testimony.

Understanding these factors can help people interpret eyewitness testimonies accurately. It is important to consider these influences to ensure that justice is served based on reliable and accurate information.