When New York residents are accused of committing a crime, it may seem like a slam dunk if there was an eyewitness to the alleged crime. The surprising truth is that the reliability of eyewitness testimony may be a myth. While previously it has been believed to be one of the strongest indicators of guilt, new research into the mind and memory suggest the opposite.
According to the Association for Psychological Science, eyewitness testimony is second only to a signed confession when it comes to convincing a jury that a person is guilty. Although this testimony can seem convincing and dramatic in the moment, the truth is that convincing does not equal accurate.
In the late 1980s, DNA science totally changed forensic investigations and provided an unparalleled level of accuracy when it comes to who committed the crime. Since DNA testing became reliable and popular, over 350 have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit. In many of these cases, eyewitness identification was a large part of the conviction. The Innocence Project declares that of the wrongfully convicted who have been exonerated, they had served an average of 14 years behind bars for crimes they were not guilty of.
The memory has long been believed to record events like a video camera, which is incorrect. The memory is susceptible to bias, and people are more likely to minimize some events and emphasize others. Memory can change over time and the personal identity gained from memory can change the actions of a person. It is also more likely that someone notices when they accurately remember something but pay less attention to the times that their memory was not accurate.
The memory creates stories based on experiences. Sometimes those stories are extremely accurate while other times they are totally fictional. Because lives and futures often rely on the testimony of an eyewitness, it is important to have some other form of objective evidence to determine guilt or innocence.