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Why eyewitness testimony isn’t a sure bet for prosecutors

You’ve been arrested for a serious offense, and the police detective tells you that they have an eyewitness who can positively identify you as the perpetrator of the crime.

Is it time to panic? Well, any arrest should make you immediately start looking for an experienced defense attorney to handle your case, but it definitely isn’t time to throw in the towel. Your conviction is far from assured — even with eyewitness testimony.

Why? Because eyewitnesses are often wrong. Research has proven that human beings are incredibly susceptible to suggestion and false memories. In one significant experiment, researchers were able to convince a third of their subjects that they “remembered” a childhood event that never happened — and 25% of those people were so convinced that they swore the fictional events were real even months later.

Most people assume that memories get played back in the mind as if the owner of those memories were hitting “play” on a video. In reality, memory is a malleable thing. They’re reconstructed from incomplete information each time they’re recalled — and they sometimes pick up information and details from the present that weren’t really part of the original scene. When a potential witness is shown your photo, for example, the image of your face may override the image of the actual perpetrator in their minds and fix itself there.

Some things that can influence a witness include:

  • Racial disparities between themselves and the suspect
  • The presence of a weapon at the scene of the crime
  • The use of disguises, altered appearance and poor lighting
  • A lack of notable characteristics in the suspect (such as tattoos, facial scars and the like)

An experienced defense attorney knows that eyewitness testimony can be successfully challenged and overcome. If you’re facing serious criminal charges, find out more about your legal options.

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