Is Eyewitness Testimony Reliable?


The number of incarcerated individuals who later are freed due to DNA evidence proving their innocence has cast a great deal of doubt on the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Especially in sexual assault cases, eyewitness testimony often proves to be false. Nonetheless, police and prosecutors, including those in the state of Texas, continue to rely on discredited identification procedures in prosecuting criminal cases today.

In many of these cases, there is no genetic evidence, so it is impossible to tell how many cases have resulted in erroneous convictions based on eyewitness testimony. For instance, in robbery cases, eyewitness testimony often operates as the primary means of evidence, even though significant doubt underlies these witness identifications and corroborating evidence is non-existent.

Various factors may make eyewitness identifications less reliable. These factors may include:

  • Victims often getting on a brief look at their attackers
  • Victims focusing on a gun or weapon rather than the face of the person holding it
  • Stress can distort the memory of crime victims
  • Research shows that identifying strangers and people of different races is often difficult

Nonetheless, eyewitness testimony is a top reason why juries convict accused persons of crimes, second only to DNA test results. As a result, law enforcement officials continue to use it as a primary source of evidence, even when conflicting evidence exists. Texas law also permits criminal convictions based on a single uncorroborated eyewitness.

Although many police departments have written policies on how to best conduct lineups, there tends to be little oversight of these policies, at least according to one recent report. Nonetheless, some strides towards improving this form of evidence are occurring. Police in some departments are recording all eyewitness identifications. A police officer unrelated to the case conducts the lineup or photo array. Police officers also must show the witness one picture at a time, rather than six pictures all at once. Plus, the photographs must all be in color, or all in black and white, or all photocopies, so long as they are the same.

Person crying and testifying
Is Eyewitness Testimony Reliable?

All too often, police have eyewitnesses identify suspects from photo arrays and lineups. This practice occurs even when the witnesses have not been able to give any specific details about the person.  Likewise, when an eyewitness omits a distinct characteristic in describing the suspect but later identifies a person based on that characteristic, the identification may be inaccurate. Police also may fail to use best practices in conducting a lineup, such as by allowing two witnesses to identify someone from a lineup at the same time.

When you are facing any criminal charges in the state of Texas, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney to represent your interests. Contact Peek Law Group at  (512) 399-2311 today and set up an appointment to speak with our legal team.

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