Pros and Cons of Eyewitness Testimony

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To see is to believe. For many years, we have relied so much on our sight to validate our perception and understanding of the world around us. But just how reliable are our eyes and how trustworthy is eyewitness testimony?

Eyewitness testimony is any account provided by an eyewitness, a statement made under oath (sworn statement), which is either written on paper (affidavit) or done in court (court testimony). But for a person to swear he or she is telling the truth does not really make his or her sworn statement the truth, does it?

List of Pros of Eyewitness Testimony

1. It Influences a Jury’s Decision.
Eyewitness testimony, especially those done personally in court, allows the jury to hear the accounts of a crime directly from the person, as he or she recalls everything they saw or witnessed. Extreme emotions can arouse, and the way the eyewitness recalls their memory can be a basis for determining the witness’s credibility.

2. It Serves as Compelling/Substantial Evidence.
In the absence of DNA evidence and other substantial evidence, eyewitness accounts are highly considered as compelling evidence and enough to implicate the defendants. This is especially true when the testimony was obtained right after the incident, when the memory is fresh. At times, an eyewitness testimony is the only way to prove or disprove a defendant’s innocence.

3. It Helps Depict the Bigger Picture.
Eyewitness testimony helps obtain the proper sequence of events, which is essential for understanding what happened, why it happened, and who were responsible. It helps solve the mysteries and answers questions regarding cases and events.

4. It Supplements or Validates Other Evidence.
On its own, eyewitness testimony may have credibility issues, but when used in conjunction with other evidence, it can create a strong proof against the defendant and facilitate the flow of justice.

List of Cons of Eyewitness Testimony

1. It Heavily Rests on the Credibility of the Witness.
The jury tends to believe and uphold the sworn statement of a “credible” eyewitness. But who determines and validates one’s credibility? This makes the jury’s decision susceptible to subjectivity.

2. People’s Memory is Corruptible and Inaccurate.
Study shows that when false facts are introduced to a person’s memory, that person tend to have difficulty recalling what actually happened, and may even recall false or corrupted memories and believe them to be true. Also, the longer the event has happened, the harder it is for someone to recall it. In the case of a victim being the eyewitness, his or her injury, the weather condition and other external factors can blur their memory enough to make it inaccurate, and yet remains submissible to court.

3. Crime Creates Fear and Causes Dishonesty.
The trauma of witnessing a crime, and the fear of being implicated into the chaos or being an object of revenge, are enough to dilute their supposedly reliable and honest accounts of the crime. Negative thoughts and emotions, as well as external threats, can cause the eyewitness to hide some facts or make a false testimony.

4. It Can Implicate the Wrong Person.
When the court decides in favor of a testimony based on corrupted memory or done by a dishonest eyewitness, it could send the wrong person to jail. A false eyewitness testimony alone can wrongly convict a person and change his or her life forever, even when the court’s decision is later reversed.

Indeed, the eyes can be deceiving. What is essential may be invisible to the eyes, and some things are relative to the beholder. Research shows that our visual perceptions are prone to corruption, bias, and may even be skewed from the truth.

Experts recommend the careful evaluation of the condition of the eyewitness during the crime, proper validation of their credibility, and subjecting them to more open-ended questioning to help them recall what actually happened, not what they perceived to have happened.