Witness Blindness: Memories & Perceptions Not Always Reliable


Author: Lowell Steiger

Published On: June 14, 2010

You may be interested in an article that I came across in A Public Defender, a fascinating blawg. This particular article, Change Blindness and the Fallacy of the All-Remembering Cop, illustrates how faulty a witness’s memory might be. This phenomenon is known as Inattentional Blindness. Watch the short but very eye-opening videos below. The first one illustrates how an eye-witness can easily misidentify an alleged defendant. This, of course, would also apply to eye-witnesses in civil cases misidentifying or not accurately recalling people, places and things involved in an auto accident, slip and fall case, etc. Watch The Door Study by Daniel Simmons.

In A Public Defender’s article, he goes on to discuss the case of Jerry Bordeaux and Roger Christianson.

Take the sad case of Jerry Bordeaux and Roger Christianson. Bordeaux, fighting a traffic ticket, hired Christianson to represent him. Months later, when the matter was called to trial, Christianson answered for Bordeaux and started questioning the officer:

When the case started, the sole witness was Officer Coronado, who had ticketed Bordreaux. While Officer Coronado was on the stand, Mr. Christianson asked him:

  • “And what was I wearing?”
  • “Had I cut off my beard that day?”
  • “Was I wearing a beard that day?”
  • “I am the driver?”

After Officer Coronado identified Mr. Christianson as the person he had ticketed that day, Mr. Christianson revealed that he was actually the lawyer! What a brilliant ploy — if Officer Coronado couldn’t even remember which person he had ticketed, how could he be certain of what Mr. Bordreaux had done. By switching places with his client, Mr. Christianson impeached the reliability of Officer Coronado’s memory.

Finally, the following video, The Monkey Business Illusion by Daniel J. Simmons, confirms that we cannot always rely on eye-witness testimony. This is not to say that an eye-witness has an agenda or that he/she is evil, lying, etc., but simply that we all have the ability to misperceive and rely on our misperception or that we have faulty memories because we are human. Therefore, an attorney “beating up” an eye-witness’s testimony is often times appropriate when zealously advocating for his/her client. In fact, it is the ethical thing to do! (Note: It can be done with finesse, without humiliating the witness and allowing them to retain their dignity).

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