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Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony

In general, most people believe that eyewitness testimony is reliable. However, research in the fields of cognitive and social psychology indicates that eyewitness testimony may be overvalued and there are often issues with the memories of eyewitnesses. Eyewitness testimony mainly comes from memories, and memories are mostly an interpretation of what one person saw (or thought they saw) rather than an objective record of actually happened. Sometimes an eyewitness may have insufficient information in the memory itself and so the eyewitness may fill in gaps of information from their pre-existing interpretations of the world, from other memories, or from information learnt after the fact. As eyewitnesses recall an event over and over again, they sometimes drop details from earlier versions and add new details to later versions and so the accuracy of their testimony can be questionable. Also, a lot of raw sensory data is discarded by our memories and so people may remember colors as being brighter than they were or overestimate the speed of a slow vehicle and underestimate the speed of a fast moving vehicle. While humans can distinguish thousands of physically present colors, one study suggests they can only identify seventeen by memory. So while we often consider eyewitness testimony to be dependable and trustworthy, there are several factors that contribute to the faulty memory of eyewitnesses.

If eyewitness testimony must be used in a personal injury trial, there are ways to strengthen its effectiveness. Having more than one witness that saw the same thing happen makes it safer to rely on the evidence, as more than one person acknowledges that something happened a particular way. Also, since memories fade with time, it is also important to obtain witness statements as soon as possible and have them write down what they saw as soon as possible so that it may be used to refresh their memory later on at a deposition or trial. If you’ve been injured in an accident and have the opportunity to get the contact information of any witnesses, it is important to get that information and get in contact with them as soon as possible regarding what they witnessed as it may help your case if there are any questions as to who or what caused an accident down the line.