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Is eyewitness testimony reliable?

When a criminal case goes to court, jurors are apt to place a significant amount of weight on the testimony of eyewitnesses because they believe the facts such people present are accurate. However, what the eyewitness observed or experienced relative to the crime can be affected by psychological factors, which include anxiety, stress, reconstructive memory and weapon focus.

Stress associated with the crime

The high anxiety associated with witnessing a crime can result in misrepresenting the actual facts, such as details about the crime scene or incorrectly identifying the perpetrator. The stress experienced by the witness is extreme and, as a result, recollections may be faulty. In addition, recollections may be affected by the length of time that has elapsed between the incident itself and the time the case actually goes to court.

The meaning of reconstructive memory

Research shows that people store information in a way that makes the most sense to them. If, for example, three people are asked to retell a short story, each will do so in his or her own way, putting emphasis on certain points, ignoring information that does not seem pertinent and so on. The same thing happens if witnesses are asked to recount the details of a crime. Recollections of an event can be colored by expectations and may therefore not be entirely accurate.

How weapon focus figures in

Jury members will likely be intrigued by a description of the weapon used in a crime, and this is one area where an eyewitness can usually be quite accurate. Anyone who observes a crime being committed will focus on the weapon itself and can usually describe it in detail. Attention to the weapon will be so complete, in fact, that the witness may only dimly remember what the person who was holding it looked like.

Reaching a verdict

Perjury is defined as knowingly making a false statement, but it is not a crime to misremember facts. Experienced attorneys understand that eyewitness testimony can be flawed, that what they remember about the crime may not be entirely accurate. Therefore, they question witnesses closely, hoping to extract as many reliable facts as possible from their memory storage. Jury members assemble these facts and review them with one another in secret to arrive at the verdict. The thought of going to trial is daunting, and the credibility of eyewitness testimony may be a troubling point, but help is at hand. Legal representation is critical for anyone who even suspects that he or she might be under investigation for a crime.

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