How credible is eyewitness testimony?

Many Wisconsin residents facing criminal charges wind up spending time behind bars. Often, it is the testimony of one or more eyewitnesses that convinces a jury of a suspect’s guilt. Yet, eyewitness testimony is not always credible. Instead, memories are often far more unreliable than one would think, and memory is also malleable. Our memories often undergo distortion or ‘drift’ over time. We often unwittingly remember the memories of others as our own. This is problematic given how much weight jurors give to eyewitness testimony, which is a lot more than science suggests is proper.

According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification is now the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the United States. Eyewitness misidentification poses a serious threat to anyone facing criminal charges that are based upon identification by a witness who does not know you. And yet, when an eyewitness claims it was you, the police usually stop there and fail to try to corroborate the identification.

Eyewitness misidentification statistics

The Innocence Project has determined that more than 375 Americans with serious criminal convictions later had their convictions overturned when DNA evidence exonerated them. Of those 375 individuals who had their convictions overturned due to DNA evidence, 69% of them were initially convicted based largely, if not solely, on the testimony of eyewitnesses who identified them.

Eyewitness account issues and problems

Research suggests that problems with eyewitness identification practices contribute to wrongful convictions. Sometimes, those conducting lineups give eyewitnesses hints or clues that a particular individual is responsible. Many eyewitnesses are also under the false impression that the guilty party is always going to appear in a lineup, although this is not the case.

Some law enforcement agencies are making changes to how they conduct lineups and work with eyewitnesses. Some are starting to document all lineups electronically. Others are having eyewitnesses state how confident they are in their identifications of particular parties, among other strategies. But the simple fact is that change comes slowly, and many police continue to conduct improper, unduly suggestive lineups and other identification methods.

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