Can eyewitness identifications be trusted?

On Behalf of | Oct 19, 2022 | Criminal Defense

We’ve all watched a movie or TV crime drama where an eyewitness is on the stand. They’re 100% sure they saw the accused commit the crime despite it being nighttime, the subject’s back was turned, and they only got a fleeting glimpse. The jury uses that testimony to convict the suspect wrongly. It could only happen in Hollywood, right? Sadly, no.

Eyewitness testimony remains one of the most common types of evidence presented by prosecutors in courtrooms across Texas. But studies show it is also one of the least reliable. The numbers are staggering. According to the Innocence Project, 71% of 360 exonerations nationwide based on DNA results involved mistaken eyewitness identifications.

Factors that influence eyewitness accounts

In many cases where physical proof is scant or non-existent, eyewitness accounts may be the prosecutor’s only evidence. But several reasons exist why this testimony may not be reliable. These include:

  • Memory contamination: Eyewitnesses can be influenced by others who weren’t there but offer suggestions about what happened.
  • Police questioning: Investigators’ leading questions often further confuse memories and lead to wrong assumptions.
  • Stress: Many people who witness serious crimes can suffer from PTSD, leading to anxiety and foggy recollections.
  • Witness bias: Eyewitnesses may have certain prejudices about race, religion or other issues.
  • Poor eyesight: In many cases, witnesses are physically incapable of making positive identifications.
  • Lineups: When several people are featured in a lineup, witnesses often choose someone who looks like the person they think they saw or are nudged by law enforcement towards the person police believe to be guilty.

It can only take one of these flaws to lead to a wrongful conviction.

The role of law enforcement

Witnesses often feel pressure from officers to help with their investigations by being told they are “doing the right thing.” Many officers wrongly influence witness recollections intentionally or unintentionally while questioning them. In an effort to please investigators, witnesses may be more inclined to agree with their suggestions.

Remember, law enforcement does not have to tell you the truth if you are suspected of a crime. They can lie about evidence, such as eyewitness testimony. Likewise, they can suggest scenarios to eyewitnesses that may have no basis in fact but fit their narrative for proving a case.

That’s why it’s crucial to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney before speaking to officers. While investigators can lie to you, prosecutors cannot lie to your lawyer. Eyewitness accounts are one piece of evidence, but knowledgeable lawyers understand how they are misused in many situations.