Many people think eyewitness testimony is some of the most convincing and compelling forms of evidence, but there is an important distinction between being convincing and compelling and being accurate. Studies have shown that eyewitness accounts are actually far more fallible than many people assume, which is unfortunate given that your future may depend on the distorted or inaccurate memories of someone else.
Per the Association for Psychological Science, many courts and juries have long relied upon the accounts of eyewitnesses when convicting those suspected of criminal offenses. However, the increased availability of DNA science showed that many people convicted of crimes due to eyewitness accounts were actually innocent.
Innocence Project research
Research by the Innocence Project reveals that, since 1989, more than 350 convicted criminals who received death sentences had their convictions overturned as a result of new DNA evidence. Of those 358 people, 71% received their convictions after eyewitnesses came forward and shared their accounts.
Many of the eyewitness accounts that led to the convictions of these individuals were wholly inaccurate. In 41% of cases, the individuals identified by eyewitnesses were not even of the same race as the offenders proved guilty through DNA analysis. Also, the average length of time each of these offenders spent behind bars after their wrongful convictions was 14 years.
Factors affecting eyewitness account accuracy
Why are eyewitness accounts often inaccurate or false? Part of the problem relates to the fact that memories are subject to distortion as time passes. Contrary to common belief, your mind does not record the things you see in the same way a video does. Instead, it is subject to bias and exaggeration, both of which may impact the accuracy of an eyewitness account.
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