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Science says eyewitness accounts of often very wrong

Eyewitness accounts are often used in court cases in Maryland, as witnesses are brought on the stand and asked many questions about what they saw. However, according to some scientists, these accounts are often incredibly inaccurate. They've even been called shockingly wrong, and scientists have encouraged courts not to trust them.

One example case that scientists note happened in 1984. A man was convicted on charges that he had murdered and raped a young girl. A full five eyewitnesses testified against him. His sentence got him the death penalty.

The man spent nine years behind bars, awaiting his fate. However, DNA testing was then done, and it turned out that he'd never committed the crime at all.

Clearly, the witnesses made devastating mistakes in pointing to the wrong man. While it would be easy to say this case was an outlier, a study showed that these instances are more common than many people think.

In fact, a group called the Innocence Project has been operating since the 1990s, using DNA evidence to examine old cases. DNA evidence has helped to overturn a total of 239 convictions. Of those, the group says that eyewitness testimony was the basis for a full 73 percent of those convictions.

Surveys that have targeted jurors have found that they often take eyewitness testimony very seriously, and they'll put a lot of faith in it when determining a verdict—even though these testimonies are so often wrong.

Clearly, it's important to know the role that eyewitness testimonies play if you're going to court in Maryland, but it's even more important to know what to do when these testimonies are inaccurate.

Source: Scientific American, "Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts," Hal Arkowitz, Scott O. Lilienfeld, accessed March 30, 2016

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