How Reliable Is Eyewitness Testimony?

In building cases against alleged sex offenders, prosecutors often rely on eyewitness testimony. While on the surface this type of evidence may seem strong, it has been shown that people often misremember details and improperly identify defendants. Understanding how to dig into potentially unreliable eyewitness testimony can be a big component of a strong criminal defense strategy.

The Innocence Project has found that incorrect eyewitness identifications have played a role in over 70 percent of the wrongful convictions that have been reversed through DNA evidence. The organization states that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. This finding echoes the assertion of a 1932 book by Edwin Borchard, a Yale law professor.

According to the Innocence Project, the variables that affect eyewitness observations fall into two general categories. The first is estimator variables, which describe environmental factors that law enforcement authorities and prosecutors cannot control. Estimator variables can include the lighting at the scene of the crime, the witness’ race and the amount of stress that the witness was under at the time. The second category is called system variables. These are the factors that can and should fall under the control of the criminal justice system. Identification procedures and other processes used in retrieving and recording a witness’ memory all fall into the system variables category.

The penalties that accompany conviction for sex crimes are serious. Not only can they include substantial jail time, but they also carry a social stigma that can haunt those who are convicted for the rest of their lives. Because of this, it is important that defense strategies take advantage of all potential weak points in the prosecution’s case, including the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.