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Are Eyewitness Accounts Reliable?

We’ve all seen that dramatic scene in our favorite television show or movie when a key eyewitness stands up in court and names the guilty party, and everything is wrapped up nicely as the end credits begin to roll. However, the truth is, it rarely works like that in real life, and often someone’s memory may not be as reliable or as accurate as we think.

Eyewitness accounts have long been known to have the potential to be unreliable. In fact, The Innocence Project reports that mistaken eyewitness identifications contributed to 71% of the more than 360 cases overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence. The organization, which works to free those wrongfully convicted, endorses a range of procedures aimed to improve the accuracy of eyewitness identification. Although 24 states have adopted these procedures, South Carolina currently is not one of them.

There are a wide variety of factors that can account for the high rate of eyewitness misidentifications:

  • Witnesses to a crime who must testify in court typically experience high levels of stress and anxiety – during the incident, during interviews with authorities and during their testimony at the trial itself.
  • Even with the best of memories, humans aren’t video recorders. When we have small gaps in our memories, the brain does its best to fill them in to create a complete picture, but it may not necessarily be correct.
  • When witnessing a crime, people instinctively tend to focus on the weapon and not the suspect’s face. Most eyewitnesses can describe the gun or knife used in a crime better than the suspect.
  • The suggestive use of lineups and identification procedures by police and prosecutors can steer witnesses toward a particular or desired result.
  • The Innocence Project also reports that cross-racial eyewitness identification tends to be exceptionally questionable.

Questioning the reliability of eyewitness testimony

Even though it’s well documented that eyewitness accounts aren’t always accurate, they’re still considered a powerful piece of evidence in a criminal trial. An experienced criminal defense attorney can challenge eyewitness testimony based on a variety of factors, including:

  • Exposing bias or falsehood. If any animosity or hostility existed between the witness and the defendant, there may be an issue of false identification.
  • Challenging the memory of the witness. As time passes between the identification of the defendant and the incident, the witness’ memory may be called into question. Also, as we mentioned above, stress and trauma can also affect their reliability to identify the suspect correctly.
  • Challenging the vision of the witness. A skilled attorney will point out any poor lighting, obstacles, clothing items or even eyesight issues that could prevent the witness from properly identifying the suspect.
  • Challenging the lineup or photos. Law enforcement must follow strict procedures when conducting a lineup or photo array for a witness. If an officer makes any sort of suggestion to the eyewitness or improperly conducts a lineup, the testimony should be considered invalid.

Eyewitness testimony can be quite powerful in the eyes of a jury, but it’s important to remember that it’s not one hundred percent reliable. Attorney Randolph Hough has decades of criminal defense experience and will put that experience to work for you to protect your freedom and reputation. To schedule a free consultation at The Law Offices of A. Randolph Hough, P.A. please call (803) 590-0289 or fill out our contact form. We maintain offices in Columbia and Charleston.