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Examining eyewitness accounts in criminal cases

Facing criminal charges can be incredibly stressful and frightening. People in this situation can be worried about fines and going to jail, losing their job and their families. In the midst of all this, it can be very difficult to get an accurate picture of the situation and your legal options.

In this vulnerable position, a person can easily be misled about their case. For example, a police officer or someone else might claim that there are eyewitnesses who place you at the scene of a serious crime. You might therefore assume that your best option is to plead guilty. However, this could be a big mistake.

Challenging eyewitness accounts

Eyewitness accounts are not perfect. In fact, they are among the least reliable pieces of evidence in a criminal case, according to one criminologist interviewed in this New York Times article.

Our abilities to see, accurately register, remember and then describe a person are highly flawed, especially in situations of high stress. People misremember and misinterpret details or fill in memory gaps with things we believe to be true. These are chemical, biological responses that our body experiences in times of a traumatic event.

As such, two people can see and remember details of the same stressful event very differently. They can then give varying - and even contradictory - accounts of what happened and who was involved.

What this means in criminal cases

In other words, just because someone claims they saw you commit a crime is likely not going to be enough to convict you, despite what police might tell you. It is possible to challenge eyewitness accounts so that they are not valuable to a prosecutor's case.

In order to do this and build an effective defense, it can be vital that you speak with an attorney if you are facing criminal charges.

Law enforcement agents and prosecutors are not there to help you; they are there to make arrests and hold people accountable for crimes. To protect yourself and your rights, you should have a legal representative on your side.

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