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Why are eyewitnesses wrong so often?

On Behalf of | May 20, 2024 | Criminal Law

Over the last few decades, analysis of DNA evidence has led to overturned criminal convictions. There have been hundreds of these cases. The DNA evidence shows that the person who was convicted wasn’t actually the one who committed the crime. They may already have spent months or even years behind bars, but they can finally have their name cleared.

Often, what researchers discover is that an eyewitness testimony led to the initial conviction. The DNA evidence now proves that the eyewitness was wrong. Since this happens in the majority of overturned cases, you may be wondering why eyewitnesses get the details wrong on such a consistent basis.

Memory can change

Each case is unique, of course. There are some cases where an eyewitness lies or invents a story entirely. Some eyewitnesses may be biased against certain groups of people and intentionally pick them out of a lineup, for example. But these cases are rather rare, as most witnesses were unaware they were about to witness a crime in progress and they have nothing to gain by inventing a story.

Instead, what often happens is that the eyewitness’s memory changes. People often forget that memory is malleable and they think it is like a video recording. But telling the same story numerous times can cause those memories to change. So can reading accounts of the event or watching a news report. All of these things can alter memories slowly – but the eyewitness may not realize it is happening and so they believe that their memories of the event are accurate.

False convictions can rob you of time that you can never get back. This is why it’s so important to understand your criminal defense options when facing charges.