Eyewitness testimony is compelling but unreliable

On Behalf of | Aug 10, 2021 | Criminal Defense

Prosecutors in New Jersey and around the country often rely on eyewitnesses to identify criminal suspects and place them at crime scenes because juries tend to find this kind of evidence extremely persuasive. Experts have long questioned the reliability of eyewitness accounts, but their concerns were largely ignored until DNA evidence was introduced in the late 1980s. Some of the individuals exonerated by DNA evidence were freed after spending decades behind bars, and many of them were convicted and sent to prison because an eyewitness made a mistake.

Renewed interest in research

The introduction of DNA evidence and the questions it raised about prosecutions and criminal defense strategies led to a greater interest in several studies dealing with the reliability of eyewitness testimony. In 2014, a report that contained a review of these studies was released by the National Academy of Sciences. The report concluded that the problem was rooted in the nebulous nature of memory and the complexities of the human mind. Two years after the NAS report was published, a professor from the University of Wisconsin Law School released a study of wrongful convictions and the steps being taken to prevent further miscarriages of justice.

Avoiding mistakes

The professor ended his study by saying that law enforcement and the courts must both implement reforms to prevent innocent people from being convicted based on unreliable eyewitness testimony. The changes suggested in the study include:

  • Including only one suspect in police lineups
  • Telling witnesses that the suspect may not be in the lineup
  • Having police officers not assigned to the case conduct lineups
  • Making sure that the “fillers” in a lineup are the same race and a similar age to the suspect
  • Informing juries about the problems associated with eyewitness identification

False confessions

Being identified as a criminal by a person with no reason to lie can be devastating, and it is not uncommon for suspects in this situation to confess to crimes they did not commit rather than take their chances in court. This most often happens when suspects do not ask for an attorney or avail themselves of their right to remain silent.