Aside from DNA evidence, few other forms of evidence are as convincing and compelling as an eyewitness account. As someone facing a criminal charge, it is critical that you understand that there is an important distinction between being convincing and compelling and being accurate.
According to the Association for Psychological Science, research shows that memories, which are the basis of eyewitness accounts, are fallible and prone to distortion. Memory is also malleable, which means that memories may change and potentially become less accurate over time. Why, then, do juries put so much faith in eyewitness accounts?
Why misconceptions abound about eyewitness testimony
Some believe that the false sentiments about the accuracy of eyewitness accounts prevail because movies and popular culture make it seem as if eyewitnesses always have clear, detailed memories of the things they see. Others believe that it may be due to a false and common belief that individuals are more likely to remember events that are stressful or anxiety-inducing, which witnessing a crime may be.
Confirmation bias, which involves interpreting any new evidence in a manner that confirms existing beliefs, may also lead witnesses to believe that their memories are more accurate than they really are.
How research calls accuracy into question
As DNA testing increased in popularity, it revealed troubling information about how often individuals wind up in jail because of false eyewitness identifications. Since 1989, 358 people who received convictions and then death sentences underwent exoneration after DNA evidence proved they were not the guilty parties. Of those 358 people, 71% received convictions in the first place because eyewitness placed them at the scene. Those convicted served an average of 14 years behind bars before exoneration.
Also troubling is the fact that minorities are frequent victims of eyewitness misidentifications, with 41% of these instances involving cross-racial misidentifications. Of the 358 people wrongfully convicted, 221 of them were African American.