You may have watched a movie where five people stand against a wall as someone behind a one-way pane of glass points to the person who committed a crime. The person behind the glass pointing at the perpetrator is likely an eyewitness. An eyewitness is someone who was present during a crime and can give a first-hand description of the events.
Many people believe that the word of an eyewitness is always true. However, many people don’t know that eyewitness testimonies can be wrong. How does this happen when an eyewitness watched a crime happen with their own two eyes? Here’s what you should know:
Human memory isn’t the greatest at its job
Eyewitnesses often have to recall the events that took place before, during and after a crime. The ability to store and recall memories, such as witnessing a crime, requires the use of part of the temporal lobe of the brain. This part of the brain is malleable, which allows new information to exist in the brain alongside old information, but it also allows memories to be altered.
Because the brain and memories are so malleable, eyewitnesses may not have the most accurate depiction of crimes. Several things can influence memories, such as biases, expectations and mood. For example, someone who believes that a certain race is inherently violent may automatically assume that someone of that race did commit a crime and unknowingly adjust their story to fit their narrative.
Furthermore, people can have false or implanted memories. Studies have shown, for example, that people can completely believe childhood events that never happened. False memories can lead eyewitnesses to misremember events and misidentify people involved in crimes.
When an eyewitness gives their testimony, it’s possible a false memory or bias can cause someone innocent to go to jail. It’s often important that defendants understand their rights and have a strong legal defense by their sides.