The legal standard for human justice systems for thousands of years has been eyewitness testimony. When two or three are gathered to see a specific event, then recounting the details of that event can provide a powerful tool for prosecutors to make sure that they have captured the right person. Even in accidents or legal document signing, eyewitness testimony has become an important part of our culture. There are some pros and cons to consider with eyewitness testimony in each circumstance that must be weighed as evidence is considered, so let’s take a look at these advantages and disadvantages in more detail.
The Pros of Eyewitness Testimony
1. Those who hear it can get a glimpse of what really happened.
An eyewitness tells a story from memory of events that happened. In some forms, this story serves as proof that an event occurred, such as the signing of a legal document. In other cases, this testimony serves as evidence of a crime committed or as a means of determining who may be responsible for any given situation.
2. It is generally reliable.
When eyewitness testimony is obtained immediately after an event has occurred, then the details that are inveighed from one person to another are generally reliable. This helps investigators understand what may have happened and what course of action they may need to pursue in order to resolve an issue.
3. A sequence of events can be obtained.
In order to understand how something happened, people need to know how it happened. Eyewitness testimony provide a sequence of events to help others understand how an incident may have played out. This sequence of events is important to establishing a motive for a reason behind what has happened. When the motive is understood, then it becomes possible fix the foundation of the problem so that a repeat incident doesn’t have to occur.
The Cons of Eyewitness Testimony
1. It isn’t reliable.
Everyone has a certain personal bias. This isn’t a bad thing, because it is a natural thing. Everyone has a unique set of circumstances through their experience and their upbringing that provides a certain perspective when events are viewed. This bias means that an eyewitness testimony isn’t 100% reliable. Even if just the facts are told, a personal bias within the retelling of those facts will be present.
2. Memory fades.
Have you ever noticed that it becomes more difficult to remember certain events as time goes by? Things that are crystal clear in our short-term memory don’t always transition into our long-term memory. Because of this natural circumstance, eyewitness testimony of events that happened years ago may just disappear.
3. Mistakes in perception can become facts.
When adrenaline is coursing through a person’s veins, certain senses are heightened. Because there is this heightened perception, however, there is actually a lack of mental resources available for memories to be committed. This is why some people might think that a perpetrator is 6 feet tall and weighs 300 pounds when in reality they’re 5 inches shorter and weight 100 pounds less.
Because of the pros and cons of eyewitness testimony, it has been a standard to have two or three eyewitnesses necessary for conviction. We have moved away from that standard today, so it might be time to reconsider these advantages and disadvantages in our justice systems.