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The problem with eyewitness testimony in homicide cases

Have you ever seen a person from across the room and thought it was someone you knew only to find out that it was someone else? That moment may simply cause you a bit of embarrassment, but that's it. You may have even had a good laugh with the person you mistook for someone else.

In that situation, no one got hurt. However, when a supposed eyewitness to a crime makes this sort of mistake, it can cost a person his or her freedom. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Here's why.

What's the main issue with eyewitness accounts?

With the advent of DNA testing, some people who were incarcerated for violent crimes such as murder who were convicted based on eyewitness testimony later went free due to DNA evidence. You may be surprised just how many murder cases hinge on eyewitness testimony. The Innocence Project found that 78 percent of the first 130 questionable convictions for murder that its attorneys and law students reviewed relied on eyewitnesses.

The problem goes well beyond eyesight, but a study done by the University of Virginia discovered that people over the age of 60 had the hardest time identifying people. However, they remained confident in their recollections even when they were wrong. Juries tend to give a considerable amount of weight to the testimony of people who appear confident. Even people with good eyesight have trouble identifying a person the farther away they are, and in many murder cases, the alleged perpetrator can be up to 450 feet away or more.

Other issues with eyewitnesses

Poor eyesight may seem like the answer to why eyewitnesses are unreliable, but that isn't the only reason. Below are some other factors that affect the efficacy of their identifications:

  • Photo lineups often cause witnesses to choose a person who looks the most like the person they thought they saw. In fact, if the alleged perpetrator isn't even in the lineup, many witnesses will still choose someone, which presents a problem. Some believe that witnesses should view one photo at a time to make a determination and that police officers conducting the lineup should not even know who the suspect really is in order to avoid unintended bias.
  • People tend to make misidentifications when they are attempting to pick out someone of a different race. The reliability goes up some when the witness and the alleged suspect are of the same race.
  • The stress surrounding the situation may also affect one's ability to correctly identify someone. The reliability of an identification tends to drop even further when a weapon is involved in the offense. People naturally keep track of the weapon, which can compromise the ability to recognize the person wielding it.
  • Officers may either intentionally or unintentionally lead a witness to choose the "right" person with leading questions. Prosecutors may also ask questions in court designed to lead a witness to the answer they believe to be true.

With all of these potential issues (and perhaps others), relying on an eyewitness is problematic.

Challenging eyewitness testimony

As you can imagine, in a case as important as a homicide, the person accused of killing another human being has a lot at stake. When an eyewitness plays a significant role in whether a person faces serious criminal penalties, it only makes sense to challenge that person's identification of an alleged perpetrator.

Undertaking this task often requires a significant amount of experience. If you find yourself facing allegations of murder, a Tennessee criminal defense attorney who understands the problems with eyewitness accounts may prove invaluable.

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Mark Scruggs, Trial Attorney
95 White Bridge Rd. Ste 508
Nashville, TN 37205

Phone: 615-988-4128
Fax: 615-356-6954
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