Eyewitnesses can provide evidence that’s very compelling to a jury. If you’re facing domestic violence charges, and you have a witness testifying that you committed the crime in question, you may be worried about what you can do to change the jury’s mind.
While it is human inclination to want to believe what others observe and recount, it is important to understand that eyewitnesses make mistakes – and frequently. When DNA testing became more advanced at the turn of the century, the Innocence Project conducted a reinvestigation of a broad range of closed cases where DNA evidence was involved. The organization found nearly 400 cases of wrongful conviction. A whopping 75% of these cases involved eyewitness misidentification.
What makes eyewitness testimony unreliable?
Our brain is the most advanced organ in our body, and we tend to give it a lot of credit. But the truth is, our memory is fallible. A recent study shows that many factors can influence that way in which we perceive and retain events:
- Environment: Situational conditions can affect our perception. If a witness is observing an event from across a room that is dimly lit, for instance, details from afar become less clear. If a witness overhears an argument from another room, the strength and tone of one person’s voice may carry through the wall, while the other person’s voice remains inaudible to the witness. This could skew their impression of the interaction.
- Attention: The human brain is only able to focus on one thing at a time. In a high-risk or dangerous situation, we naturally focus our attention on the thing that poses a threat. If an attacker is holding a knife, a witness is likely to pay more attention to the weapon than the attacker’s face.
- Inference: Because our brain cannot focus on everything at once, it is constantly making situational inferences to create a complete memory that makes sense to us. A witness may be in a crowded room and hear someone yell, “he’s got a knife!”. Their brain may then fill in the blanks by creating a memory of seeing someone holding a knife, even if the witness didn’t actually see the attacker. This happens on a subconscious level, so a witness would have no idea they were bending the truth.
The impact of recitation
By the time an eyewitness makes it to court, they may have recounted the events they witnessed any number of times – to police and lawyers alike. This fact can cause problems in the testimony they give in court. Repetition can reduce accuracy. The more a witness recounts their experience, the more the details are likely to change.
Increased repetition also leads to increased confidence in the witness. Their testimony may have changed without their noticing, but repeating their testimony multiple times has made them more confident in what they’re reporting.
How to address these obstacles
An incriminating testimony from an eyewitness can create real hurdles in getting a defendant acquitted. However, an experienced criminal defense attorney who understands how they above factors can influence memory and perception can more effectively call into question the credibility of an eyewitness account. This has the potential to make or break the outcome of a case.