The Unreliability of Eyewitness Testimony
The reliability of witness testimony is a vastly complex subject, but legal scholars and forensic psychologists say it’s possible to extract the truth from contradictory accounts and evolving memories. According to Barbara Tversky, professor emerita of psychology at Stanford University, the bottom line is this: “All other things equal, earlier recountings are more likely to be accurate than later ones. The longer the delay, the more likely that subsequent information will get confused with the target memory.”
Memory is a reconstructive process, says Richard Wise, a forensic psychologist at the University of North Dakota. “When an eyewitness recalls a crime, he or she must reconstruct his or her memory of the crime.” This, he says, is an unconscious process. To reconstruct a memory, the eyewitness draws upon several sources of information, only one being his or her actual recollection.
“To fill in gaps in memory, the eyewitness relies upon his or her expectation, attitudes, prejudices, bias, and prior knowledge. Furthermore, information supplied to an eyewitness after a crime (i.e., post-event information) by the police, prosecutor, other eyewitnesses, media, etc., can alter an eyewitness’s memory of the crime,” Wise said in an email.
That external input is what makes eyewitness testimony so unreliable. Eyewitnesses are generally unaware that their memory has been altered by post-event information, and feel convinced they’re recalling only the incident itself. “Once an eyewitness’s memory of the crime has been altered by post-event information, it is difficult or impossible to restore the eyewitness’s original memory of the crime,” Wise told Life’s Little Mysteries.
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