Eyewitness testimony not always reliable in criminal cases

This article looks at recent research into how eyewitness testimony may sometimes be unreliable.

In recent decades, DNA testing has helped exonerate hundreds of innocent people who were convicted of crimes they did not commit. According to Scientific American, 73 percent of overturned convictions originally rested on eyewitness testimony, with about a third of them being based on multiple eyewitnesses. Eyewitness testimony is an important element in many criminal cases and a confident eyewitness can be very persuasive on a jury. However, a growing body of research is showing that eyewitness testimony is not always reliable and problems with it can lead to miscarriages of justice.

The problem with memory

Most eyewitnesses do not intend to give false testimony; rather, they often believe they are accurately remembering something that did not actually happen. Researchers are increasingly finding that the problem with eyewitness testimony is based on a common misunderstanding of how memory functions. One researcher notes that while most people consider memory to be akin to a video recording that can simply be "replayed," the truth is that memory is more like a puzzle that is constantly being reconstructed and changed every time a memory is recalled.

False memories are a serious problem for criminal justice. Eyewitnesses may create their own false memories at various stages of a criminal investigation or trial. During a police lineup, for example, an eyewitness may feel pressured to identify a suspect. That pressure may convince him or her that a particular person in a lineup is indeed the person he or she witnessed committing a crime, even if the person in the lineup and the actual culprit only vaguely resemble one another. According to researchers, false identification especially becomes a problem when the suspect does not have any distinguishing physical features, such as tattoos or scars.

Improving testimony

As Science Magazine points out, research into eyewitness testimony is ongoing, along with methods for improving the reliable of eyewitnesses. However, ways of improving police lineups in particular already exist. Researchers say that officers who are involved in an investigation should not be present at a lineup identification since such officers are more likely to unconsciously give eyewitnesses subtle clues about which person in the lineup is the suspect. Additionally, people in a lineup should resemble one another and the eyewitness should be informed beforehand that the actual suspect may or may not be in the lineup.

In the courtroom itself, researchers suggest that eyewitness research experts should be allowed to testify more frequently at trials. Such experts have largely been excluded from trials on the basis that their evidence is inapplicable and largely commonsense. However, as more studies are revealing, research into eyewitness testimony could help jurors better understand the potential problems of relying too heavily on an eyewitness' statements.

Criminal defense

Anybody who has been accused of a criminal offense should reach out to a qualified criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can help uphold the rights of defendants and provide them with invaluable advice about how to respond to whatever charges have been filed against them.