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The problems with eyewitness testimony

| Jan 13, 2020 | Criminal Defense |

One of the most surprising things you might hear after being charged for a crime you didn’t commit is that someone saw you do it. How could that be possible? If you were walking out of a store when someone else was robbing it, or if you were miles away, how could someone say they’d seen you?

The fact is that eyewitness testimony is often completely bogus. Scientists and legal professionals have known for years that it can go horribly wrong. But prosecutors still make heavy use of it, largely because it’s effective. It might not be good evidence, but it’s the sort of evidence that can wow a jury.

Good stories built on bad foundations

The biggest problem with bad eyewitness testimony is that it’s convincing. In 2010, a study of all the convictions overturned by DNA testing found that 73% had been based on eyewitness testimony. Jurors aren’t scientist robots. They’re ordinary people who can be moved by a powerful story. Most won’t understand all the problems with eyewitness testimony.

Instead, they’ll only hear someone’s account of a crime scene and a crime. They may hear about the horrifying results. And they’ll often have little to weigh against the witness’s testimony other than the defendant’s word—the word of the person accused of doing something violent, evil or awful.

For example, an eyewitness helped convict an Indiana man for attempted murder roughly 25 years ago. But the full story of that witness’s testimony never came out in court. As it turns out, the witness testified that the shooting he’d seen had left glass in his eye. That likely impaired his vision. He identified his suspect while he was in a post-surgery fog. And he had been put under hypnosis before he testified at trial. There were plenty of reasons to question his story.

Stories often weigh heavier than facts

As Scientific American noted, it’s not always enough for defense attorneys to use experts to challenge witness testimony. Juries respond with their emotions to the witness, but they respond to the expert with their reason. Emotions tend to trump reason in human decision-making.

Even so, it’s important for defense attorneys to challenge witness testimony. They need to help jurists understand—in their guts—all the reasons it can be flawed, including:

  • Poor visibility can lead to confusion
  • Witnesses may be biased
  • Witnesses may be under great stress during the crime
  • Bad police lineups may steer the witness

At Kammen & Moudy, our attorneys understand the challenges of overcoming bad witness testimony. We understand the impact it can have, so we work hard to make sure juries see—and feel—the bigger picture.