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New information can change a witness's memory

The role of the eyewitness in a criminal case is rather controversial. To the general public, the eyewitness appears to be trustworthy. Many witnesses have no reason to lie -- so the jury may assume that they are telling the truth and giving an accurate account.

However, experts know that eyewitnesses are often wrong. They make mistakes. They "remember" things that never happened. If you ask two witnesses about the same incident, they may both remember it very differently -- and they'll both seem shocked that someone else saw it differently than they did.

There are a lot of reasons for this unreliability, and much of it just has to do with memory. We feel like memories are firm and accurate. If you think back on an event, it's very easy to trust what you remember.

The reality, though, is that memories are often wrong, no matter how accurate they feel. One reason is that they can change over time, especially if the witness is exposed to new information. This could come from news reports, for instance, or from talking to other witnesses. They accidentally alter their memories to reflect this information.

"New information has the potential to contaminate, distort or transform a prior recollection," one expert said. "And that's one of the major reasons why people make mistakes."

Again, the trouble here is that the witness does not even realize it is happening and thinks he or she is being fully honest. Those who are facing charges need to make sure they understand the problems with witness testimony and the legal options they have to protect themselves.

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