ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Eyewitnesses: The Most Common Cause of Wrongful Convictions

Updated on March 28, 2014

Eyewitnesses have always been considered very strong evidence in a criminal case. If a man robs a gas station, and the clerk identifies the defendant as the the robber you would be inclined to believe the eyewitness right? Well, it turns out that people give each others memories much more trust than they actually deserve. In a study by the University of Nebraska students were shown a staged crime. A week later the students were shown a photograph lineup, and an actual lineup. When identifying the criminal in photos the students chose an innocent person 20% of the time. With a lineup, an innocent person was identified 8% of the time. The criminal justice system treats eyewitness accounts as one of the hardest types of evidence in court, and it is used extremely often. Eyewitnesses are much less reliable than we believe they are, and this is why.


An eyewitness' confidence may seem like an important tool in determining the validity of their judgment, but it's actually not. If an eyewitness is on the stand in a trial yelling "I saw him with my own two eyes!" you may be more inclined to believe the witness. In a 1995 study comparing eyewitnesses' accuracy and eyewitnesses' confidence, the researchers found that extremely confident witnesses had only slightly higher accuracy than witnesses who had little confidence. This could be the result of witnesses' confidence being altered by other factors like emotions. These finding need to be taken into account in the court of law because if an eyewitness fervently identifies a defendant, the jury could mistakenly give more credence to the witness' identification.

Reconstruction and Social Pressures

There are two main psychological practices that lead to incorrect eyewitness accounts. Reconstruction is the process of new information reconstructing or altering memories subconsciously. For example if an eyewitness sees the defendant during the trial the eyewitnesses description of the perpetrator might be reconstructed to more closely fit the physical attributes of the defendant. Social Pressures are very powerful and can call into question an eyewitness' validity. For example, let's say a mailman witnessed a murder of a husband. He might be socially pressured by the victim's family to 'get a conviction' and alter his actual account. One of the worst things that can happen to a witness is a judgement on the defendant, such as guilty or not guilty. This can lead to changes in the witness' account to favor the witness' preconceptions, an attempt by the witness to alter the outcome of the case regardless of the lack or presence of evidence.


Cognitively there are many things that can distort, or replace memories. Interference can take place, in which chaotic or emotionally strenuous circumstances flood the brain with stimuli making details difficult to recall. Retroactive interference is when new information takes the place of old information making the old information inaccessible. For example if you memorized a phone number and then read a page of phone numbers in a phone book you would have a difficult time remembering the phone number.

Police Mistakes

Police sometimes employ both mug shot arrays and lineups. After the witness looks through the lineup and is unable to identify a suspect the witness is then shown a series of photographs. Since the only person that is in both the lineup and the mug shot array is the defendant the witness might say that the suspect looks "familiar" during the mug shot array. What the witness doesn't know is that they remembered the face from the lineup and not from the actual event. Another common problem is the power of suggestion. False memories, or distorted memories can be implanted into a witness through suggestive interrogation, carefully asked questions that can lead witnesses to alter their memories subconsciously. Mistakes are easy to make, and almost impossible to undo. Once a witness has been spoiled in one way or another their validity is gone.

How reliable are eyewitnesses from your point of view?

See results


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)