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Eyewitnesses may not remember events properly

| May 31, 2019 | Firm News

If you’re facing criminal charges, the case may rest on the testimony of a witness. Maybe they claim that they saw you fleeing from the scene, and you match the description given to police officers. Even if you deny involvement, the jury may assume you’re lying and that the witness is telling the truth.

It sounds like a bulletproof case for the opposition. If someone remembers seeing you there and has no reason to lie — they did not even know you before the event — then the jury trusts that memory. But should they?

Changing memories

One issue with memory is that the average person does not know how it works. They think of it as something that is frozen in time, like a recorded video of an event. When they replay that memory in their mind, they assume that what they remember is accurate. It feels like it is. How could they be wrong?

That’s not how it works, though. The reality is that your brain stores information in different areas. When you recall something that happened to you, it has to bring all of that information back together and reconstruct the memory. Sometimes, it can’t find some of the important information or it adds things based on your current experiences.

That’s why you sometimes forget bits and pieces of a memory without forgetting the whole thing. You remember going to a concert with your friends 20 years ago, but you can’t remember exactly who else came.

It’s also why you may add in details based on new suggestions or information. Experts have called this “creative reimagination.” You sort of incorporate what you learned later with what you remember, and it all feels like the same memory. Someone tells you that they also came to the concert, and then you can remember them being there, even though you didn’t before.

Criminal cases

Even without getting into the highly technical, scientific side of how memory works, it’s not hard to see how this could impact a criminal case. The eyewitness sees your picture on TV after the arrest. They think back to that person they saw fleeing the scene in the dark, and suddenly they feel fairly sure it was you. The police arrested you for a reason, after all. When they testify, they say they clearly remember you, even though they may be mixing that memory with new information.

This is just one way that criminal cases get very complex and often controversial. If you find yourself facing charges, you need to know what legal defense options you have in Colorado.