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Is eyewitness testimony reliable in a criminal case?

Since 1989, at least 317 people have been exonerated in the U.S. as a result of post-trial DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. The majority of these innocent prisoners were wrongfully convicted due to eyewitness misidentifications and false testimonies. While some studies argue that the human memory is to blame for wrongful accounts of a criminal event, others believe that the eyewitness identification process may lead witnesses to name an innocent person as the criminal.

Research by Loftus and Ketcham shows that many people believe that the human memory is infallible and that a person who witnesses a crime will have detailed information stored away in their long-term memory. However, evidence shows that a person’s long-term memory is susceptible to suggestion. People can add details to their memories or adjust their idea of what happened during a situation to fit a preconceived notion. Specific bits of information can be literally erased from the mind as well. This leaves a person’s account of what happened during a crime extremely unreliable in most cases. 

There are many other factors that can lead an eyewitness to falsely identify a suspect, according to Scientific American. When a witness experiences severe stress during the crime, especially if a weapon is used, their memory can be affected. Racial disparities between the witness and the suspect, the use of a disguise, and the amount of light present can also affect the accuracy of eyewitness identification.

Law enforcement officers are also required to follow certain procedures when conducting a lineup. Failure to follow these processes, which include using a double-blind lineup and videotaping the identification process, may result in an inaccurate identification and subsequently a wrongful conviction.

As a result of these inaccuracies, many innocent people currently sit in prison waiting for the truth to come out, and possibly set them free. This information is to be used for general purposes only and is not to be taken for legal advice.

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