How Reliable Is Eyewitness Testimony?

The reliability of eyewitness testimony has been highlighted by the Ferguson grand jury process, in which the grand jury heard from a number of eyewitnesses with differing accounts of what transpired between officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown.  Each likely believed what they saw, but clearly all of the different accounts could not be accurate.

The Washington Post published an article on November 25, 2014 titled Why many “eyewitnesses” in the Darren Wilson investigation were wrong, reporting on the science behind eyewitness testimony.  According to the article, prosecutor Robert McCulloch in a press conference stated that all of the eyewitnesses claimed to see officer Wilson shoot Michael brown, but the similarities ended there.  The article further reported on two experts who addressed why the accounts differed.

Emory University psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld told New York Magazine about the shortcomings of eyewitness accounts:

Surveys show that large proportions of people, at least in the United States, think that human memory works like a video tape or a DVD.  And we know of decades of psychological research that human memory, including eyewitness memory, doesn’t work that way.

Columbia University psychology and education professor Barbara Tversky wrote in the Stanford Journal of Legal Studies that it’s human nature for witnesses to plug holes in their memories with assumption:

Reliance on assumptions are necessary to function in our society . . . We are constantly filling in the gaps in our recollection and interpreting things we hear. . . Once witnesses state facts in a particular way or identify a particular person as the perpetrator, they are unwilling or even unable — due to the reconstruction of their memory — to reconsider their initial understanding.

So where does that leave us?  It leaves us with the understanding that eyewitness testimony is not wholly reliable and should not be wholly relied upon in the criminal justice system.

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