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Why eyewitness accounts in criminal cases aren’t reliable

On Behalf of | Aug 21, 2023 | Criminal Defense |

If the police charge you with a crime, someone’s memory may have contributed toward their decision. Someone told an officer that they recall seeing you, or someone matching your description doing something that links you to the crime.

The problem is that most people’s memories are not that good – otherwise, they wouldn’t constantly forget people’s birthdays or wonder where they left their car keys. What’s more, even those people with incredible memories are prone to false memories.

Super memories do exist

In 2006, researchers identified the first case of someone with highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). By 2017 they had still only identified under 100 people with this condition. While many of us can remember where we were when Kennedy was shot or the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, these folks take it to another level altogether. They can likely tell you who they sat next to in primary school on any given day, and what they had for lunch that day.

Yet even they, with their powers of memory that far exceed those most people possess aren’t always accurate. Researchers looking at this group found they were just as prone to distorting their memories as the rest of us. It’s something that we all do without realizing it.

We remember a journey taking five minutes when it actually took 20, remember a holiday that we thought OK at the time as being amazing, remember someone saying something funny at a party they didn’t even attend.

Clearly, the unreliability of our memories is a problem if the police and prosecution are trying to pin the blame for a crime on you based on what someone else thinks they remember about that day. 

Learning how to challenge an eyewitness’ testimony makes it more likely you get to spend the next few years creating pleasant new memories, that even if they aren’t entirely correct, will be a whole lot better than the ones you could make in a prison.

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