The Constitutional Rights Foundation reported that in one study, 52% of wrongful convictions were due to incorrect eyewitness statements.
In the realm of criminal proceedings, eyewitness accounts have long been a cornerstone of evidence. However, a closer examination reveals significant challenges and potential pitfalls associated with relying solely on the recollections of those who witness a crime.
Human memory is fallible and susceptible to distortion and alteration over time. Eyewitnesses may unintentionally alter their memories because of external influences, such as suggestive questioning or exposure to media coverage. This can lead to a phenomenon known as memory contamination, where the original memory becomes intertwined with external information, compromising its accuracy.
Another problem is that people see things through the lens of their own thoughts and feelings, which are different from person to person. People might understand what happens differently because of their views, opinions or emotions. Things like stress, fear or the presence of weapons can also affect how well someone remembers what happened. In really stressful situations, people might pay attention to some parts of what is going on and forget about other parts, making their memory of the event incomplete or not entirely accurate.
Adding to these difficulties is the weapon focus effect. This happens when there is a weapon around, and it makes the person watching pay more attention to the weapon instead of the person with the weapon or other important details. This focus on this one detail can make it harder for the person to describe the person who did something wrong accurately.
Studies show that individuals might struggle to identify someone who is a different race from them. This is important to think about because it shows that we need to be aware of possible biases and limits when it comes to eyewitness identifications.
Many times, courts have wrongly convicted individuals because of mistaken identifications. Innocent people have been in prison for a long time, only for new scientific methods or evidence to later prove them innocent. Because of these problems, legal systems are starting to understand the importance of being careful when relying only on what someone said they saw.