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Four factors that affect eyewitness reliability in Virginia

Eyewitness accounts have largely been shown to be inaccurate, which is devastating for many criminal cases in Virginia.

“To err is human”, which is precisely why eyewitness accounts in Virginia criminal law cases are not always accurate. In fact, according to a 2014 report from Science magazine, in nearly 75 percent of cases involving rape and murder in which the defendant was later determined to be wrongfully convicted, eyewitness testimony was often the primary basis for the conviction.

While there are a number of factors that come into play when it comes to someone recounting the events that they believe took place during a particular event, here, we will take a look at the four most common factors that can lead to inaccurate reporting or misidentification.

1. Memory mechanics

Though we would like to believe that our memories are generally reliable and that we can accurately recall the details of what we observe, the truth is that our memories are often affected by the way we make sense of the world. For example, a person who, as a child, spent their summers at a lake and then revisits that lake decades later will often say or report differences such as they “thought the trees were bigger” or that they “remember the lake seeming larger.”

The way we perceive something in the moment and then remember it is not always as it actually is. In other words, we do not necessarily remember facts so much as remembering information in a way that makes sense to us at that time and under those circumstances. This can have a very serious effect when a witness is attempting to recall crucial facts and details in a litigated criminal case.

2. Stress

For most people, witnessing a criminal act take place (particularly a violent act) can be both surprising and shocking. Further the unpredictable nature of many criminal acts, coupled with the speed with which they often occur can cause further fear and stress for the witness. That stress that a witness will often experience during the event can play a critical role in how they remember the event. Simple Psychology reports that when stress levels are high, someone’s memory efficiency is, unfortunately, likely to be low. Therefore, a witness may have trouble accurately remembering the critical details of an event. Further, human nature can cause a witness who does not see certain details to “fill in the gaps” to make the story more cohesive. This “filling in of the gaps” can cause very serious problems for persons charged with criminal acts.

3. The presence of a weapon

Compounding the problem of being involved in an already stressful situation, the presence of a weapon can further increase the fear and stress experienced by the witness. If a gun or knife is presented or used at the scene of the crime, it can often intensify and personalize the way a witness is feeling about the situation. Time and time again, studies have shown that the mere presence of a weapon will cause the witnesses to focus more on the weapon and less on the person holding it and what they are doing.

4. Appearances

When a witness attempts to recall the description of the individual he or she sees committing a criminal act, he or she may focus on clearly defining features, such as the persons hair, or the presence of glasses or a hat. Obviously, the focus on features or objects that can be later altered or discarded by the actual perpetrator can lead to misidentification by the witness. Further, multiple studies have shown that a lack of previous contact or unfamiliarity between the witness and the alleged perpetrator can significantly increase the likelihood of misidentification. It should also be noted that studies have shown a very high likelihood of misidentification when the witness is asked to identify a suspect who is of another race or ethnicity than themselves.

These are just a few of the most common reasons that eyewitness accounts should be treated with extreme caution and should be used sparingly as the basis for convictions. People who have concerns about the misidentification of perpetrators or the inaccurate reporting of a criminal event by an “eyewitness” should speak with a criminal defense attorney in Virginia.