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How accurate is eyewitness testimony?

When it comes to court cases, one of the most important pieces of evidence is an eyewitness testimony. Juries and judges are heavily influenced by the word of someone who says they saw the crime and remember the criminal, but researchers are beginning to doubt the witnesses' memory. According to ScienceMag.org, in an investigation of cases in which murder and rape cases were later overturned due to DNA evidence, as many as 75 percent of the cases had been originally based on eyewitness testimony. While this was a relief to those who had been scheduled for execution, it is a concern for every judge considering the viability of a witness testimony. There are several reasons why scientists have discovered that these eyewitnesses may not be giving correct information.

Influential lineups

The way that a witness views a lineup can have an influence on the choice that he or she makes. Scientists are researching whether a sequential order or seeing all faces at once gives a more accurate result, but investigators who arrange the lineup can also play a role in which perpetrator is chosen. Often, these detectives already have an idea of who they believe is the criminal, and they may order the possible suspects in a way that will encourage the witness to select that person. Additionally, these officials may unconsciously smile or nod when their suspect is viewed, reaffirming to the witness that that is the criminal. Scientists have determined that the best way to avoid any outside influence on a witness's decision is to use a computer to generate a random lineup and allow the eyewitness to view and make a decision without the investigators knowing who they are viewing.

Memory mistakes

New York Magazine reports that scientists are beginning to realize that there are many things that can affect a witness's ability to remember the crime scene correctly. Here are just a few of the influencing factors that have been discovered:

  • Weapons: If a weapon is used, such as a gun, the focus is likely going to be on that weapon instead of on the criminal's face.
  • Stress: A stressful situation can often reduce the witness's ability to remember faces.
  • Lighting: The lighting of the crime scene plays a huge part in whether or not the details are retained. Studies revealed that witnesses could only remember the correct person 50 percent of the time if the crime happened in full moonlight.

These are just a few of the factors that can affect memory and cause an eyewitness to make a mistake in their testimony.

If you or someone you know as been found guilty based on eyewitness testimony, the case may need to be reinvestigated to ensure that all accounts were correct. Advances in DNA technology make it possible to reexamine evidence. Contact an experienced lawyer to help you fight for your rights and freedom.

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