The Potential Failures Of An 'Eyewitness'

Courtroom gavel
William Anderson
January 24, 2021

Eyewitnesses usually make people feel confident about an accusation or a conviction in court, but that shouldn’t necessarily be the case. Just because someone says they saw something doesn’t mean they did – and it also doesn’t reflect how our memory truly works.

Eyewitnesses often make mistakes in identification, because memory is affected by trauma and in high stress situations they may not perceive or remember things as they actually happened. This can lead people to misidentify – but of course, there’s also a racial factor.

Misidentification of suspects disproportionately impacts Black people. We’re several times more likely to be wrongfully accused and convicted, and we spend a longer time in prison if we’re later exonerated. And that’s a big “if!” Misidentification can be deadly, too.

There’s a long list of people who have been sent to death row despite unreliable “evidence” including misidentification or coerced witness testimony. And there are many we’ll never know about who were executed for crimes they didn’t commit. Given this reality, people want change.

There are calls for different reforms to make eyewitness identification more critical and discourage authorities from giving cues or being coercive. The problem has a long, racist history that dates back to lynching. Always remember: eyewitnesses aren’t a guarantee.

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