Should we even use eyewitness testimony in the courtroom? To some, the question seems astounding. It’s one of the most common types of evidence. When an eyewitness comes forward to share their account, it can drastically change a court case. For even longer than the American justice system has existed, eyewitness testimony has been one of the founding tenants.
That said, its reliability is in serious question. Eyewitnesses are often wrong with their accounts. They make mistakes. They forget things. They add in new details. They misidentify people. They don’t really remember what happened. It’s so bad that some experts have called it “one of the most unreliable forms of evidence” in use today.
Lack of double-blind lineups
One issue to keep in mind is that having a person pick a suspect out of a lineup should be done in a double-blind fashion. Traditionally, the witness has no information about which person police believe committed the crime. The officers want to see if they pick out the same suspect. The officer running the lineup, though, may know.
This is problematic because the officer’s body language and other non-verbal signals could communicate who he or she thinks is the suspect, tipping off or influencing the witness. With a double-blind, the officer also doesn’t know who they’re looking for, so it’s more accurate.
A false confidence
One of the biggest issues is the false confidence that witnesses may feel when giving their accounts. It’s not as if they are lying or unsure. They’ll act very sure that what they’re saying is true and that their memories are accurate.
However, many things could influence their memory, starting with how good their natural memory is. You then have to account for environmental factors like weather or darkness. In some cases, witnesses may get other information at a later date — seeing a picture of the crime scene, for instance — and “remember” something that they didn’t actually see in real time. On top of that, you have to consider both conscious and unconscious biases that witnesses may feel, skewing their memories.
There are many reasons a witness can be wrong, as DNA evidence has shown. But this gets more complicated when the witness does not even know that they are wrong. They can appear so confident in court that it sways a jury, even though the suspect knows that what the witness is saying is not factually accurate.
The justice system gets complex, and mistakes can have a drastic impact on someone’s life. With felony charges, it could mean years or decades behind bars. All who face such charges must know what legal options they have.