Mistaken memories: How witnesses are putting the wrong people in prison

KBAK/KBFX photo, file

How good is your memory? Would you bet some one's life on it?

People do all the time.

Every day, jurors use eyewitness testimony to send someone to prison. But sometimes the witness didn't see what they remember seeing.

Before we can explain why eyewitness testimony, or someone's memory of an event, isn't always accurate, we need to explain what memory really is.

According to CSUB Dean of Social Sciences Steve Bacon, memory isn't what you think it is.

"I think the common view of what memory is is it's like a video camera constantly rolling, and when we're asked to remember something we just rewind the tape," said Bacon. "In reality, it's very different than that."

This is because memories aren't formed in an instant, but rather over time. Everything we see, hear, and experience after an event can change our memory of that event.

"It's not, that memory is always wrong, but there can be times, or situations, where there can be errors in memory," said Bacon.

For example, how someone is asked a question, or the instructions given to them before asking the question, even the environment they are in when asked the question, can change their memory.

Despite this, eyewitness testimony is second only to DNA when it comes to conviction worthy evidence. In fact, of the first 325 people exonerated because of DNA evidence, 72 percent were wrongfully convicted because of eyewitness testimony.

Local Defense Attorney Mark Anthony Raimondo told Eyewitness News this happens more often than you think.

"A lot of cases have been overturned with DNA after what is a considered a very convincing eyewitness identification," said Raimondo.

This isn't just a national issue. This is a local problem.

Kern County has exonerated more people per capita than any county in California.

As one expert put it, this doesn't necessarily mean we make more mistakes than everyone else. It means we catch our mistakes more than anyone else.

But catching a mistake can take years, and during those years innocent people are sitting in prison cell.

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