For the vast majority of human beings, sight is the most highly utilized sense. Phrases like “I’ll never forget what I saw” come to mind when thinking about how trustworthy our visual perception is. Unfortunately, when the stakes are high, we cannot always trust our eyes or our recall of what we witnessed.
Eyewitness testimony has always been and continues to be among the most common sources of evidence in criminal trials. Often, it is the only evidence linking an alleged criminal to a crime. But studies have repeatedly shown that eyewitness testimony is inherently flawed and unreliable.
This problem was recently discussed in an article by federal judge Jed S. Rakoff. He cites data from the Innocence Project about exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals using DNA analysis. Of 360 cases overturned through DNA tests, about 70 percent involved inaccurate eyewitness identifications. Some of these defendants had spent decades in prison and/or were slated for execution for crimes they didn’t commit.
There are two main reasons why eyewitness testimony is unreliable, and the first is limitations in human perception. Witnessing a crime can be scary and can imprint a strong memory in our minds. But is that memory accurate? How closely did the witness see the perpetrator’s face, and for how long? How was the lighting at the scene? Was the witness distracted by the presence of a gun or another dangerous factor?
Even racial differences can cause problems. Studies have repeatedly shown that humans are less successful when trying to identify people of other races.
The other problem with eyewitness testimony is the high likelihood of introducing police procedural bias. Whether they realize it or not, police officers often influence the decisions and memories of eyewitnesses. Examples include:
- Witnesses assume that every person involved in a live or photo lineup is a viable suspect and that the perpetrator must be among them
- Officers ask witnesses to pay careful attention to one or two suspects, which projects their own hunch about who the perpetrator might be
- Officers show certain photographs more often or early on in the process, which could cause witnesses to fill in gaps in their memory with false information
Rakoff admits that there are no easy solutions to the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. But he does note that we at least need to recognize its limits and adjust our reactions accordingly. Unless it can be corroborated with other evidence (such as DNA), eyewitness testimony should no longer be given the evidentiary weight it currently enjoys.
If you’ve been accused of a crime based on eyewitness testimony, please discuss your case with an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately.