The questionable trustworthiness of eyewitness testimony

The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) reports that U.S. courts overturned 2,932 convictions from 1989 to 2021. Of those cases, 819 involved misidentifications.

Accused individuals can prepare to defend themselves against erroneous eyewitness testimony before trial.

Defendants’ rights

In 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made a significant change to state law. The justices affirmed defendants’ rights to testify about the unreliability of eyewitness identifications.

The court acknowledged that jurors rarely comprehend the margin for error. A social scientist is now allowed to speak at trial on the credibility of human vision and memory. The court now believes such testimony does not interfere with a jury’s fact-finding duty.

Margin for error

Even with modern advances, the possibility of a wrongful conviction still exists. For instance, The Conversation reported on the case of a Texas man misidentified by six eyewitnesses. The wrongly-accused man spent nearly a decade in prison.

In 2017, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reported that law enforcement officials could influence a witness’s recall. For instance, eyewitnesses often presume that a wrongdoer is present in a standard lineup, although that may not be true.

Careless questions and unintentional coercion from officers can sway an eyewitness’s recollection. Distance, distractions, lighting and duration of an incident also affect the accuracy of a witness’s perception. Racial bias could also play a role.

The NRE estimates that wrongfully-convicted people lost 1,259 years to prison time. Despite this fact, Pennsylvania does not compensate exonerated individuals. A robust defense is necessary for parties wrongfully charged with theft, assault or another offense. With good preparation, defendants may evade the ill effects of mistaken identification.