How reliable is eyewitness testimony?

Eyewitness testimony is not as accurate as people may think and hundreds of people have been wrongfully convicted because of it.

Since the beginning of our judicial system, eyewitness testimony has always been considered the "nail in the coffin" for prosecutors. Often people here in the Greene County area may be tempted to simply plead guilty or confess to a crime they didn't commit when they are informed that there is an eyewitness.

The Innocence Project states that over 70 percent of convictions, which were later overturned, were founded on eyewitness testimony that was inaccurate. One of these cases involves a cab driver in New York who was convicted for the sexual assault of an 18-year-old girl. The girl had provided law enforcement with a description of one of her two assailants and even though this man's physical attributes differed slightly, she still chose him in a lineup. DNA testing proved he was not the assailant six years later.

Study shows faults in eyewitness evidence

In a recent study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers concluded that eyewitness testimony is prone to faults on many factors. These factors include lighting conditions, biases, duress and elevated emotions. The researchers point out that such factors can compromise the process of storing and recalling details of an event.

For example, if someone was help up at gunpoint, the person would be focusing more on the gun then on the gun holder's face. If the environment was outside at night or in a dimly lit hallway, the victim would clearly have a harder time with identification and is more likely to make mistakes when it comes to pointing out the alleged attacker.

Law enforcement methods that can address the problem

While some of the problem with eyewitness testimony can be attributed to the witness, other issues fall on the shoulders of law enforcement. The American Bar Association states that law enforcement agencies should understand the weakness of such evidence and take steps to make sure the witness is not influenced by an officer in the identification of a suspect.

The ABA points out several system variables that are under the control of law enforcement agencies. These include the following:

  • Lineups - by putting an officer, who is not connected to the case, in charge, the officer cannot accidently suggest who the suspect is to the witness - this is known as a blind or double-blind lineup.
  • Only use a "show-up" identification of the suspect within two hours of the crime having occurred. This will lower the risk of eyewitness error since the events are still fresh.
  • Use photos that all look the same - same lighting, coloring and headshot size. Avoid using multiple photos of the suspect and no more than six photos to avoid witness confusion.
  • When a witness has chosen a suspect out of a lineup, law enforcement should not make any response other than a simple "thank you." Witnesses for the same lineup should not be encouraged to talk to one another and officers should never indicate whether they chose the suspect.

Officers should also understand the non-system variables which can alter the memory of a witness and avoid assuming the witness is correct if those variables exist. Non-system variables include those listed in the study above as well as the age of the witness, distance between the witness and the suspect, if the witness had consumed alcohol and how long the witness saw the suspect.

When people in the Greene County area are charged with committing a crime, it is important for them to understand their rights, options and the investigative process. Therefore, they may find it beneficial to meet with a criminal defense lawyer.

Keywords: eyewitness, testimony, wrongful, conviction