The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony

In this article, Laura Engelhardt, underlines the importance of recognizing the fallibility of witness memories in judicial procedures:

"The process of interpretation occurs at the very formation of memory—thus introducing distortion from the beginning. Furthermore, witnesses can distort their own memories without the help of examiners, police officers or lawyers. Rarely do we tell a story or recount events without a purpose. Every act of telling and retelling is tailored to a particular listener; we would not expect someone to listen to every detail of our morning commute, so we edit out extraneous material. The act of telling a story adds another layer of distortion, which in turn affects the underlying memory of the event. This is why a fish story, which grows with each retelling, can eventually lead the teller to believe it.

Once witnesses state facts in a particular way or identify a particular person as the perpetrator, they are unwilling or even unable—due to the reconstruction of their memory—to reconsider their initial understanding. When a witness identifies a person in a line-up, he is likely to identify that same person in later line-ups, even when the person identified is not the perpetrator. Although juries and decision-makers place great reliance on eyewitness identification, they are often unaware of the danger of false memories."

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