Is eyewitness testimony reliable?

Recent studies have shown that eyewitness testimony is often wrong, leading to wrongful convictions and incarceration.

A Ramsey man has been charged with suspicion of second degree murder after the death of a man who was shot in Coon Rapids, the Star Tribune reported recently. According to law enforcement, trouble occurred during a card game at a bar. The Ramsey man then allegedly shot the victim, although officers did not state how their investigation led them to identify him as the shooter. The investigation is still being conducted with interviews of witnesses and examination of surveillance video.

Eyewitness testimony often plays an important role in police investigations but new research has shown that witnesses can get it wrong. The Innocence Project states that 70 percent of convictions that are found to have been made in error, involved eyewitness testimony. To date, the Innocence Project has successfully helped over 300 people prove their innocence and receive exoneration.

The assumption that a witness' testimony is truth

In popular crime shows and dramas, eyewitness testimony is often used as the final form of evidence to prove a character's guilt. Yet Scientific American states that jurors should not immediately assume that witnesses really saw what they say they did. This is especially true when the witness has no doubts, but sadly, jurors often give more credibility to such testimony, which can easily lead to a wrongful conviction.

A recent study shows the unreliability of eyewitness testimony according to The Washington Post. The study points out that several physical and biological factors can affect a person's ability to recall the event and influence what they remember. These biological factors can involve former experiences and any biases the witness may have. Additionally, during the process of the brain storing the information along with other data, it is possible for the brain to mix up different events or images, leading to problems when the witness is asked to recall the memory.

Law enforcement policies and procedures contribute to the problem

One of the biggest concerns for researchers and advocates is the fact that there is no set standard for all law enforcement officers to use when it comes to procedures for lineups or photo identification. In fact, USA Today points out that there are no written policies in place by 84 percent of all police agencies in the U.S. Furthermore, a large majority of law enforcement agencies fail to follow suggested policies to ensure that authorities don't inadvertently influence witnesses during the identification process.

The American Bar Association identifies police influence on witnesses as system variables. These include the following:

  • Lineups conducted by officers working on the case
  • Photos where the suspect's picture is different from the others - perhaps a different size, coloring or backdrop
  • Telling a witness they did a good job after the identification process is complete - this can give the witness a false confidence that the right person was chosen.
  • Showing the suspect in more than one lineup
  • Showing only one person to the witness and asking the witness if the person is the one who committed the crime.

Many of these things can be avoided through providing officers with proper training on human memory and the processes that should be followed, but many police departments appear to dismiss the importance of having these guidelines in place. When people in Minneapolis are facing a criminal charge, they should meet with an attorney to discuss their case and the evidence gathered against them. An attorney can make sure their rights are protected.

Keywords: eyewitness, testimony, wrongful, conviction