Eyewitness reliability

Eyewitness reliability

If this is what we depend on for convictions, we are totally screwed.

My eyes play tricks on me all of the time. I am nearsighted, but I have very good glasses that provide me with nearly 20/20 vision in both eyes (one does have astigmatism). My daughter has the same issues, same eyes, with a similar prescription.

“Mom, why does it look like I have two hands when I wave my hand really fast in front of my face?” she asked me at dinner the other night. I tried my best to explain how her fast hand was too fast for her eyes to see, how our eyes really process images upside-down, and that she was seeing both where her hand was as well as where it is now every time she waved, but I think I did a pretty poor job of it. Even so, she seemed to get it, and remarked how our eyes sure play tricks on us sometimes.

They sure do. And if that motion alone makes us see something that’s not really quite there, can you imagine how so many other variable also make our own sight untrustworthy? Think of the times you’ve woken up to think someone was there when really it was nothing, or the times you saw something underwater, or blearily upon waking, or even just when really, really tired. Would you be an expert eyewitness—or could your eyes really be that trustworthy?

Now think if you were under severe stress—say, you had a gun to your head, or you were driving erratically, or you were drunk. Could your eyes work at full capacity then as well?

I’m not saying to discount eyewitness statements at all. They can be helpful, and they should especially be taken seriously when they come from victims. That said, our eyes are just as human and fallible as the rest of us, and this simple conversation with my seven-year-old made me think of just how often we rely on “I saw it with my own two eyes!” as the only piece of evidence we ever really need.

We base entire religions or alien encounter reports or government reports on it. We have convicted people on this simple eyewitness testimony and nothing else statement. We have even put people to death, sometimes not even allowing DNA tests to be run that could prove otherwise, relying instead wholly on a lineup.

It’s kind of chilling, when you think about it.