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How reliable are eyewitness testimonies?

On Behalf of | Aug 21, 2023 | Criminal Defense |

In criminal defense cases, eyewitnesses hold a great deal of power. How they tell their story can make jurors trust and empathize with them. However, even if a witness may believe their version of the truth is a fact, it is not always the case.

The human memory is far from perfect. Various factors can affect how a person recalls an event and answers follow-up questions. Such inconsistencies can lead to wrongful convictions, so a defendant’s criminal defense attorney should catch and challenge these inaccuracies when possible.

Variables that affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimony

Often referred to as the gold standard for evidence, eyewitness testimony can sometimes be compelling enough to convict a person. Yet, it is not always accurate. Eyewitnesses may exaggerate or omit information to make a story more interesting without realizing it.

Furthermore, many other factors can influence an eyewitness’s ability to recount events accurately.

  • Stress: Research shows that short-term stress can sharpen memory, but long-term stress does the opposite. The body activates survival instincts, making some parts of the encounter more vivid and unforgettable. The pressure of testifying in court may also make recalling details challenging for some witnesses.
  • Biases: A person’s beliefs, culture and past experiences can impact how they perceive something happening. No matter how a person tries to stay objective, their biases may cause them to misremember things.
  • Reconstructive memory: This theory suggests people piece bits and pieces of a memory based on their unique personal experiences. Reconstructive memory can sometimes lead people to embellish the story with details they didn’t actually see or leave out key facts, both of which could significantly change the truth.

Unfortunately, there are numerous instances when innocent people spend several years in prison due to false eyewitness accounts.

Human memories are fickle and easily influenced, yet eyewitness accounts can still be persuasive enough to sway a jury. This can be remarkably tough for someone facing criminal charges based solely on eyewitness testimony. However, a skilled criminal defense attorney may identify inconsistencies and flaws in questionable testimonies, which may give rise to a fairer trial.


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