The Unreliability of Eyewitness Testimony in Pennsylvania

When a crime is committed in Montgomery County, law enforcement often searches for an eye witness who can place the suspect at the scene. However, there has been a significant amount of evidence uncovered that suggests eyewitness testimony is far from reliable, and has sent people to prison for crimes that they did not commit.

Faulty eyewitness testimony recently led to an order from a Philadelphia judge for two new trials according to 6ABC. The men were convicted of murder in 1998 when they were 18 years old. They were identified by the daughter of the victim but the judge assigned to their appeal ruled that her testimony was faulty. The information she gave during the trial did not match the physical description of the men who were convicted. As a result of the judge’s ruling, the two men will have the opportunity to prove that they are innocent of the crime.

A Common Problem

According to the American Bar Association, the 2011 exoneration report for the Innocence Network showed that out of 21 exonerations for that year, 19 were because of eyewitness error. DNA evidence, not available 15 or 20 years ago, has proven many people innocent of serious crimes for which they were handed a life sentence or even sent to death row. Many of these cases were convicted, based on testimony from an eyewitness.

It should not be surprising that eyewitness testimony can be faulty. In moments where a person’s life may be at risk or a traumatic event, such as a sexual assault, is taking place, the person is greatly stressed and this means that they can easily become confused or even subconsciously be influenced by earlier memories before the traumatic event. There are several factors that can play a part in a person’s ability to accurately recall details and these are:

  • Length of time the suspect was near the victim or witness.
  • Information provided by law enforcement about the subject.
  • If the victim and suspect are not of the same racial background.
  • Lineups through photographs or in person.
  • The presence of a weapon; witnesses often focus more on the weapon than the person holding it.
  • Lighting at the scene.

In addition to those factors, there have been instances where people, especially victims, mentally check out or may subconsciously transfer physical details from someone they saw earlier to their subject description.

Defense Against Eyewitness Testimony

With so many different elements that can affect memory, it is important that modern day juries take the time to consider an eyewitness’ ability to remember the small details of a subject. Part of a good defense plan is to examine the factors that may have played a role in a person’s identification of the person who has been arrested for the crime. In such cases, people facing criminal charges should talk about their situation with an experienced attorney.