The truth about the validity of eyewitness testimony

Eyewitness testimony is often considered strong evidence but often times, it is full of errors.

In Maryland, the trial of two men began recently. According to the Baltimore Sun, the men, who are brothers, allegedly raped a woman leaving a restaurant in Harford County. The woman and at least two other witnesses bore testimony in court but one witness admitted that she made a mistake in identifying which color shirt each brother was wearing. The same witness also said one of the brothers made a comment to her that was not told to the officers when she was initially interviewed.

The mix-up of the details may seem like a small thing, but studies have shown that it is not uncommon for eyewitnesses to make serious errors that can lead to the conviction of the wrong person for a crime. The Washington Post states that when there is a lot of activity going on at a scene, it is easy for people to become distracted and this can lead to the missing of key details or errors in recalling who did what and in what order.

Influencing factors

When people see something, it is stored into their memory along with other pieces of information. This collection of images, smells, sounds and tastes can greatly affect how people will recall that information. This is often why a couple may disagree over a simple memory from a trip they took and why it is easy for people to mix up details and even the names of people involved.

In recalling events related to a crime such as robbery, sexual assault or murder, witnesses' memories can be also influenced by the following factors:

  • The existence of a weapon
  • Whether there was a lot of light or shadows
  • The witness' stress level
  • The emotional state of the witness

Furthermore, a person's biases or personal beliefs can also alter the real facts of an event. For example, if a person is robbed by a person with darker skin, they may mentally jump to the conclusion that the perpetrator was African American when the real person responsible may have been a Native American or of some other race.

Other factors that can have a great influence on witnesses are the conditions under which law enforcement officers conducted the identification process. Sometimes, officers can inadvertently suggest to witnesses who the primary suspect is through a difference in photograph size or by conducting a lineup where the other members have no physical characteristics reported by the witness.

A big problem

The Innocence Project reports that to date, 330 convictions have been overturned through DNA testing. Out of that number, 70 percent of those convictions were based largely in part on eyewitness testimony. When people in Silver Spring have been accused of committing a crime, it is in their best interest to meet with a criminal defense attorney who can protect their rights.