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Robert D. Anderson, PLLC

Former Chief Prosecutor Of Loudoun County

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You get accused of a crime. A witness comes forward. They testify that they saw you. They claim they remember it very well. They were watching the whole time.

But what do they really remember? How reliable is that memory? They may not be lying intentionally, but that does not mean they’re right. Misidentification is common. Witnesses are just average people who never expected to see a crime. When it happens, how much information do they store away?

The weapon focus effect

There are many things to consider when looking into the reliability of witness testimony, but let’s take a moment to dig into something called the “weapon focus effect.” You need to know how it can impact a person’s memory any time they see a weapon at a crime scene, whether or not that weapon is used.

Scientists note that weapon focus is when a witness pays more attention to an inanimate object — the weapon — than they do to the suspect. They may remember the weapon and “fail to encode and remember information about the perpetrator’s physical appearance.”

It doesn’t necessarily mean they remember nothing at all about the person, but just that they do not have as distinct of an image in mind as they would if there had been no weapon and they had focused instead on the individual. This can lead to some serious mistakes.

After all, one thing that the authorities will ask is if the witness can pick out the person who committed the crime. If that person can’t accurately remember important details like weight, height, eye color, hair color, skin color or even gender, can they pick someone out with any degree of confidence? Or do you have to question whether or not they’re just guessing? They could also fall prey to false memories as they conflate different things that they saw during the day.

Memory is a fragile thing. Even when it feels real, it may not be. The witness may not even know how wrong they are.

Ironically, many witnesses who suffer from weapon focus can paint a much clearer picture of what the weapon looked like. That’s where they put all of their attention and they remember little details that may seem surprising. But that does not mean that everything they remember from the event is nearly that accurate.

Legal defense options

Witnesses have a lot of power in court cases. They can sway juries. When someone testifies against you, it’s critical that you understand what legal defense options you have.