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The Validity of Eyewitness Testimony

Law Office of Joseph M Pacella May 20, 2024

Eyewitness testifying in courtroomImagine that you are facing criminal charges for something you didn’t do because someone insists they saw you did it. And the most bizarre thing is that everyone seems to believe this person. Everyone but your attorney.  

The reliability and validity of eyewitness testimony is a highly-debated topic because there have been a number of cases where people were convicted based on eyewitness testimony and then exonerated years or even decades later.  

You wouldn’t want to spend years or decades behind bars just because someone says they saw you committed a crime, would you? I don’t think you would. As a criminal defense attorney practicing in Springfield, Massachusetts, I can help you disprove the information provided by the eyewitness with compelling evidence and hard facts. Let me stand by your side and fight for what’s right. At the Law Office of Joseph M Pacella, I serve clients facing criminal charges throughout Western and Central Massachusetts.  

What Is Eyewitness Testimony and How Reliable Is It?

The legal term “eyewitness testimony” refers to a person’s firsthand account of an event they have witnessed. An assault, murder, or theft are just a few examples of the events where an eyewitness may be present. Eyewitness testimony has a prominent place in criminal investigations and, in many cases, can be the only reason why a person is convicted for an offense in the first place.  

For individuals facing criminal charges, the stakes couldn’t be higher. In these intense situations, every piece of evidence can tip the scales of justice one way or another. Among the most compelling, yet controversial, forms of evidence are eyewitness testimony. The weight it carries in the courtroom is, without exaggeration, immense, but its reliability is a topic of ongoing debate among legal experts, psychologists, and criminal justice reform advocates.  

Factors That Affect the Accuracy of Eyewitness Testimony in Criminal Cases

While eyewitness testimony plays a crucial role within the criminal justice system, it’s prone to inaccuracies due to several factors.  

Memory Reconstruction: The Fallibility of Human Memory 

Human memory is not a flawless recording device. Contrary to popular belief, our memories are not stored and retrieved in their original form. Instead, memory is a reconstructive process, influenced by various factors from the environment, personal biases, and societal expectations.

When an eyewitness tries to recall an event, their brain reconstructs the memory, which can lead to alterations or inaccuracies. This reconstruction process is affected by the individual’s past experiences, knowledge, and emotions, making memory a subjective and often unreliable source of information. 

Lineup Issues: The Problem with Identification 

The potential for error during lineup procedures, whether they involve showing photos or presenting a group of individuals in person, remains a significant concern. For instance, if the lineup administrator (the person who conducts a lineup) is being overly suggestive by giving subtle cues or comments, it can inadvertently lead witnesses to identify a particular suspect.

Additionally, the composition of the lineup itself matters. If the suspect stands out from the others based on the eyewitness’s description or if the rest of the group does not match the suspect’s appearance closely, the risk of misidentification increases. 

Visual Characteristics: Seeing Isn't Always Believing 

The ability of an eyewitness to accurately perceive and remember the visual characteristics of a suspect or an event can vary greatly. Factors such as lighting, distance, and the duration of the event play crucial roles in what an eyewitness can reliably observe. Furthermore, stress and fear, both very common in criminal incidents, can impair visual perception and memory encoding.  

Pressure and Stress: The Two Enemies of Accurate Testimony 

The conditions under which an eyewitness is asked to recall information can also affect the accuracy of their testimony. Psychological pressure and stress, whether from law enforcement officials during questioning or the courtroom environment, can cause witnesses to become more susceptible to suggestion. They may also feel a subconscious desire to please the questioner or resolve the case, leading them to make more confident identifications or statements than the clarity of their memory warrants.  

Can Eyewitness Testimony Lead to Wrongful Convictions?

Whether someone was looking out of the window or was just 10 feet away from the defendant’s alleged commission of the crime, eyewitnesses are often the first source of information law enforcement officers turn to when investigating the scene. Often, there is no other evidence available other than testimony provided by those who call themselves “eyewitnesses.”  

The accounts of eyewitnesses can easily lead to arrests. When the defendant’s case goes to trial, witnesses may be asked to attend it and testify against the defendant in court. And, if their testimony is seen as reliable evidence by the judge or jury at trial, this can lead to a wrongful conviction. When the entire case is built on eyewitness testimony and there is no one to challenge the credibility of witnesses and evidence directly, the consequences can be dire. When you have legal counsel, your attorney may be able to help you file motions to suppress to have eyewitness testimony excluded from the trial.  

Let Me Help You Challenge Eyewitness Testimony in Your Case

If your criminal case is based on eyewitness testimony you believe to be inaccurate or erroneous, you shouldn’t hesitate to speak with an attorney. At the Law Office of Joseph M Pacella, I can provide you with guidance on how to evaluate the validity of eyewitness testimony in your specific case and determine if you have grounds to challenge and suppress this evidence. Get in touch today to request a free case evaluation.