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Why eyewitness testimony is suspect

On Behalf of | Oct 5, 2023 | CRIMINAL LAW - Criminal Appeals

When a crime is committed, then the police should investigate the matter and gather evidence. Law enforcement could gather video evidence from a security camera, a discarded weapon with fingerprints or bodily fluids.

One of the most useful forms of evidence that law enforcement may collect is eyewitness testimonies. An eyewitness may not always be present during criminal cases, but one that is available may greatly affect the outcome of a trial. Here’s what you should know:

Why is eyewitness testimony subject to question?

An eyewitness is someone who was present during the events of a crime or personally witnessed anything from pre-crime planning or post-crime cover-ups. They could provide law enforcement with a detailed description of a culprit or point someone out in a lineup.

An eyewitness can be anyone. It could be someone riding a bike who happened to be passing a store during a robbery. It could be someone on the other end of a video call during an assault. It could even be someone who served drinks the night of a murder. Juries like eyewitnesses because they seem to tie a defendant directly to a crime without any doubt — but that’s not always how it works.

The issue with eyewitness testimonies is that memories are not as reliable as most people think. A memory could be altered and influenced over time. Some people also have biases and preconceived beliefs that push them to falsely vilify defendants. For example, it’s well-known that people often have a harder time identifying people of other races, and that can lead to serious mistakes on the stand. Or, a “jailhouse snitch” may have personal reasons for providing false testimony about what they’ve seen and heard.

For many people, it can take years before additional evidence is provided to prove they were wrongfully convicted of crimes, but challenging the flaws in eyewitness testimony can sometimes lead to an appeal.