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Why is eyewitness memory often unreliable?

On Behalf of | Apr 17, 2023 | Criminal Defense

Discovering that someone who claims to be an eyewitness is going to testify against you could provoke fear and confusion. You might think it guarantees a conviction. You might also wonder how they could have seen you somewhere if you weren’t actually there.

Eyewitnesses’ memories are not always as accurate as they think. That means there is always a possibility that you can cast doubt on their testimony.

Here is how memory works

We cannot take something we see or hear and lock it away in our brains forever. Instead, we replay it and perhaps talk to ourselves or others about it. All that can cause the memory to change. That means the thing we tell someone next time they ask us might not be identical to what we would have said if they asked us shortly after the event.

Here is another way to look at it. Think about a particular moment in your childhood. Now go and talk to other family members about it. It’s almost inevitable that your version of events will have changed slightly due to the conversation you all had about it. If someone asks you to recount the story in a month, you might tell them something different from what you’d tell them before you asked your family about the event.

Others may influence an eyewitness

Maybe someone has tried to persuade an unsure eyewitness that it was you they saw. Perhaps they’ve been blatant about it, or maybe they’ve just unintentionally done it.

Either way, an eyewitness who takes the stand can often be wrong. Understanding how to cast doubt on their testimony takes experience, so it’s wise to get legal help if you’re facing criminal charges.