Eyewitnesses suck. They suck so much because they are the single largest reason why innocent people get convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. According to the Innocence Project, Eyewitness misidentification played a significant role in 72% of convictions overturned through DNA testing. More than 7 out of 10 innocent people were convicted with the help of very confident and very wrong eyewitnesses.
I just lost a trial where the only witness who confidently ID’d my client as the shooter was absolutely, undeniably full of cr**. It didn’t matter to the jury who did mental gymnastics to believe the witness was sixty yards closer than she really was. The jurors said that they believed her because she was so confident. Yeahh, rightttt.
I brought in Dr. Mark Reinitz, Ph.D. a psychologist who is an expert on memory and recall. Dr. Reinitz was awesome on the stand. Unfortunately, the jury really, really didn’t like my client, so they were willing to believe a witness that every other witness contradicted. Pfft.
Dr. Reinitz testified to the following facts:
- The mind is not a video recorder. You collect fragments of info and put them together in a way that makes sense later. The more fragments you gather, the more accurate the memory will be.
- Every time we access a memory, we add fragments, and we lose fragments. That’s why memories are less accurate with time.
- Stress can wipe out memory. Witnesses to violent events are generally less accurate in recalling the situation than witnesses to non-violent events.
- Post Event Information can influence memory. People frequently take outside information and insert it into a memory, believing that new memory to be accurate.
- Confidence does not equal accuracy.
- Weapon Focus. Witnesses frequently focus on the weapon used in a crime and do not pick up other fragments of information because those fragments are less important for survival. That is why victims can often describe quite accurately the gun pulled on them, but are quite wrong in their description of their aggressor.
Eyewitnesses suck. As soon as you learn of an eyewitness in a case, you need to interview that person and lock them down in their story. You also need to find as many other witnesses, and as much objective evidence (audio, video, etc.) as possible. Whatever happens, do not assume that an eyewitness is accurate unless you have strong corroborating evidence. 7 in 10 bogus convictions. 7 in ten.