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Reasons why eyewitnesses can get it wrong after a crime

On Behalf of | Oct 20, 2021 | Other Criminal Offenses

The courts in North Carolina have used eyewitnesses in criminal proceedings for decades. Witnesses are supposed to establish facts and help the authorities determine whether someone is guilty of a crime. However, witnesses can make mistakes all the time. As misidentification can lead to the conviction of an innocent person, people charged with a crime can challenge the eyewitness’s testimonies and avoid conviction by proving their innocence with other facts and evidence.

Witnesses can be wrong

The courts frequently seek eyewitnesses to resolve disputes about specific actions or circumstances. In a criminal trial, the judge hears what the eyewitness saw or heard and then considers their testimonies to make a ruling. However, the courts should not wholly rely on eyewitnesses because they frequently make mistakes and accuse innocent people of crimes they did not commit.

Eyewitnesses don’t make false accusations on purpose. They make mistakes because they are human, and many factors can affect their memory and perception. Even the most confident witness can make a false statement, so a person accused of a crime can challenge every testimony in their hearing.

Why witnesses fail

Eyewitnesses can make mistakes in many different ways. They can make identification errors or get the facts of a crime wrong without even knowing that they are making a false statement. Our perception and our capability of changing our memories are the two main reasons why witnesses fail:

·       Failure of visual and auditory perception

What an eyewitness remembers can be wrong because it is possible that they got distracted or nervous when the crime occurred. Loud noises and poor viewing conditions can make a witness say they saw or heard something untrue. Fear is also a factor that can make someone unable to think or remember objectively.

·       Memory is malleable

Human memory is not like a video that you can play back accurately In fact, we can change our memories every time we think about them, and we tend to fill in the gaps with our biases when we don’t remember something. As most trials take place years after a crime is committed, many eyewitnesses forget important details about the event and then make them up with their personal biases, experience and knowledge. For example, prior knowledge that bank robbers carry guns enhances the probability that witnesses will say they saw the robber with a gun.

One way to prove that a witness is making a false statement is by challenging their testimonies with real facts. For example, if a witness says they saw someone at the crime scene, but that person has proof that they were at another place at the time, the court will not consider the witness’ statement.

The right to defense

Witnesses are humans, and humans can make mistakes. However, a witnesses’ mistake can result in an innocent person going to prison. Although witnesses are not 100% reliable, jurors still place a heavy weight on testimonies when deciding whether someone is guilty of a crime. However, a person accused of a crime has the right to prove their innocence in court by finding flaws between what the witnesses say and what actually happened. There is more evidence available that the accused can use to avoid conviction, and they have the right to use that evidence to fight for their freedom in court.