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Are eyewitnesses reliable forms of evidence?

In New York and across the nation, the justice system uses eyewitnesses as forms of evidence in criminal cases. Eyewitness evidence holds power in a criminal trial, as more jurors are likely to find a person guilty if eyewitness testimony is present.

Yet, studies show that eyewitness evidence, including lineups and testimony, is often inaccurate and unreliable. Inconsistencies in the eyewitness lineup process and limitations of human memory can result in an innocent person getting chosen and marked as a suspect.

A look at the eyewitness lineup process

During a standard eyewitness lineup process, witnesses are led by a lineup administrator to select a person from the lineup that they believe to be the perpetrator. In some cases, however, there is only one person present in the lineup that matches the perpetrator’s description.

It is critical that the administrator leading the lineup inform the witness that the suspect may not be present in the lineup at all. This takes away the stress of having to select a person, even if witnesses are not totally sure of their choice. Lineups should be taped so the judge and jury can review the process if questions arise.

Issues with eyewitnesses

Even though a witness may feel they have an accurate memory of what happened during the crime, studies show that memories made during stressful events can become altered over time. According to Frontline, the human brain may fill gaps in the memories with details that may have not actually occurred. As time passes, these details become solidified in the memory as actual events, even though they never happened.

Furthermore,  the following can influence human memory:

  • Racial disparities between the witness and the perpetrator
  • Presence of a weapon
  • Lighting and visibility at the crime scene
  • Distance the witness is standing from the crime

The amount of time that has elapsed from when the crime occurred until the witness is asked to recall certain details about the crime and characteristics of the perpetrator is also significant to the reliability of the witness’s testimony.