The Unreliability of Eyewitnesses: Confirmation Bias

Contrary to what they would like you to believe, police are not everywhere. Instead, they need to rely on other people to investigate crime and make eyewitness identifications. Unfortunately, this process is often fraught with complications because science has shown, time and time again, that eyewitness identifications and eyewitness testimony is far from reliable. However, law enforcement continues to use it, resulting in erroneous convictions that put innocent people in jail.

Eyewitness Identification is Powerful in Court

One of the reasons why eyewitness identification is so heavily relied on by police is because it is so powerful to use in a trial. Juries find eyewitness testimony to be incredibly persuasive, especially because it is often the only thing that the prosecution has to go on.

It is in those cases, however, that eyewitness identification is at its most dangerous. When there is no other evidence of a crime aside from the fact that someone else claims to have seen it take place, so much hinges on the ability of one or a couple of people to accurately remember what happened.

Unfortunately, science and past experience has shown that this rarely works the way it is supposed to.

Eyewitness Identifications are Notoriously Inaccurate

According to the Innocence Project, an organization that handles appeals for people who have been convicted of a crime that they know they did not commit, eyewitness identifications are one of the main obstacles they face on a daily basis. Of the more than 300 wrongful convictions that the Innocence Project has overturned with DNA evidence, 72% of those convictions were made because of an eyewitness identification.

A common basis for inaccurate eyewitness identification and testimony is confirmation bias. Rarely does a witness see the whole crime play out. Instead, they only see a small part of it. However, after hearing of the rest of the crime, their description of what they saw often changes to incorporate or otherwise explain the parts of the event that they did not see.

An Example of Failing Eyewitnesses and Confirmation Bias

A classic example of the unreliability of eyewitnesses due to confirmation bias came from the Trayvon Martin trial. There, George Zimmerman was accused of shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman claimed to be acting in self-defense.

Over the course of the investigation and trial, no fewer than four key witnesses made huge changes to their stories of the events that led to Martin’s death. All of these changes proved to be more damning to Zimmerman’s self-defense claim than the original stories that the witnesses provided. This was likely because the witnesses heard more about the rest of the crime, and molded their own stories to fit the rest of the narrative.

The Federal Criminal Law Center Fights for You in Court

The attorneys at the Federal Criminal Law Center fight for your rights in court against federal charges, from drug possession to mortgage fraud and everything in between. Many of these trials involve this same kind of eyewitness testimony that can result in a wrongful conviction. Contact our law office online for legal representation.