The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

In trials involving eyewitness testimony, the frailty of memory often becomes a key part of the defence strategy, . Eyewitness accounts can make a deep impression on a jury, especially when the witness is expresses a high level of certainty. However, although a confident eyewitness can make or break a trial, experience shows that mistaken identifications have and do occur and courts have long recognized this.

Many people believe that human memory works like a video recording of our experience, but according to experts, memories are actually quite fragile and susceptible to contamination. As the recent trial of Jian Ghomeshi shows, memories can change over time and be impacted by stress and trauma. The science behind why people remember certain details and not others, and why our memories and the way we recount them can change over time have been closely studied and arise frequently in court.

Several studies have been conducted on human memory and on the propensity for eyewitnesses to remember events and details that did not occur. It is not uncommon for victims to genuinely and confidently identify their attackers only to be proven wrong by DNA evidence years later, as was the case in the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer.

 But this does not mean that eyewitness identification is always unreliable. Sometimes eyewitness identification can be used to exonerate a person who is wrongfully accused of a crime. However, courts are now aware of the ability of third parties to introduce false memories to witnesses. There is only one chance to test the memory of an eyewitness as their memories can become contaminated. That is why it is so important that the testing conditions are adequate. Proper interview techniques and procedures by police and prosecutors are essential to ensure the reliability of identification evidence.

If you would like to speak to an experienced criminal defence lawyer, please contact Affleck & Barrison online or at 905-404-1947.