Imperfect memories: The problem with eyewitnesses

| Apr 12, 2019 | criminal defense

You probably feel like your memories of an event are very clear and accurate, but have you ever listened to two people try to tell the same story? They often contradict each other. Little details are remembered differently, such as who was where, what time something happened and who said what. The basic story might be the same, but they definitely remember different things — even though they were both there.

This happens with eyewitness testimony, as well. For as much weight as it often carries in criminal trials, eyewitnesses also have imperfect recollections. They make mistakes. They remember things differently.

As one expert put it: “Eyewitness testimony is, at best, evidence of what the witness believes to have occurred.”

This does not mean that the witness is lying intentionally. They just do not understand how many factors can impact their memories and make them an inaccurate representation of what happened. Some factors include:

  • The age of the witness
  • The person’s overall health
  • The viewing conditions at the time
  • Any personal biases that person holds
  • Various perception problems
  • The witness’s own expectations
  • The stress of the situation
  • A poor sense of self
  • The conversations that the witness may have had with other people who saw the same event after it occurred

Many criminal activities have these elements to consider. Witnesses may be stressed out by the situation, they may be too far away from what is happening, they may have poor eyesight and they may harbor personal biases that push them toward certain assumptions. Can you really trust that account? If you’ve been accused of a crime, make sure you know what defense options you have.