People think they know things about their own experience that are actually untrustworthy.

What we have seen or heard is at best what we happened to notice, filtered through assumptions and constructions of our brains. In most circumstances our versions of past events are good enough, but never exact.

Even diaries are creative reports of a day’s acts, often massaged by notions of what one wished had happened. Healthy minds adjust pictures of the past with evidence, and this gives us a sense of their dependability. We then mistakenly think of our memories as facts.

In a court of law this feeling of certainty is dangerous. Eyewitness testimony is weak at best and dangerously wrong much of the time. Of convictions reversed when DNA evidence was considered, 70 percent were due to eyewitness errors according to the Innocence Project (over 360 cases).

Juries are foolishly influenced by courtroom identification assertions. If the witness knew the accused it can be more credible, but strangers are not clear in memory.

Bias and lack of experience can make foreign faces more difficult to discriminate. Lineups are often set up in ways that presume a correct choice is possible. Good intentions, like a desire to serve justice and right a wrong, can make a tentative accusation seem legitimate.

Surveillance cameras might help in some cases but clever criminals can fool them. I cannot imagine face recognition software doing much. Ultimately, prosecuting attorneys need to be more careful in distinguishing reliable identifications from the fallible.

Sadly, the most fallible are eyewitnesses.

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