There is a lot of discussion about the reliability of eyewitness identification. It still remains one of the most compelling forms of testimony in jury trials in California.
However, research suggests that memory is not infallible, and it often morphs over time as it receives new information.
Trusting traumatic memories
The general belief is that victims and bystanders automatically recall traumatic events in perfect detail due to their life-changing nature. Conversely, the Association for Psychological Science stated that powerful emotions like intense anxiety and fear can actually impair memory.
To protect itself from trauma, the mind might mentally disconnect from the experience and stop making memories. What little that witnesses do remember is often forgotten quickly.
Yet their minds can trick them into believing that the memories should be there. Witnesses may begin pulling information from outside sources, like law enforcement interviews and lineups, and unconsciously create new “memories” that might not reflect actual events.
Making mistaken identifications
As eyewitnesses’ minds instinctively struggle to reconcile the absence of memories with the belief that they do exist, the authorities are often putting the witnesses through suspect lineup procedures. According to the Innocence Project, there are several problems with traditional police identification processes.
The witness is often under the impression that the real perpetrator must be in the lineup, so the mind searches for and misidentifies the closest match to the incomplete memory. They are likely still in a highly suggestible state, and can easily read subconscious cues from lineup administrators that may single out the suspect believed to have committed the crime. Sometimes, a poorly constructed photo lineup can lead eyewitnesses to choose a picture that looks different from the others if it closely resembles their perception of the suspect.
In these scenarios, the witness has just unknowingly and unintentionally named a suspect that may not have been present at the crime scene at all. Furthermore, as time passes, research shows that confidence in their accuracy tends to improve drastically, leading them to a false certainty.