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Why is eyewitness testimony sometimes unreliable?

On Behalf of | Dec 29, 2022 | Criminal Defense |

When police in Massachusetts make an arrest, they often rely on eyewitnesses to pick out the suspect involved in the crime. Unfortunately, many factors can render their testimony flawed; these are the main problems with it.

Factors that affect witness reliability

Nobody’s perfect, so a person may be mistaken about what they believe they saw during the commission of a crime. A major factor that affects eyewitness reliability is stress; if a person witnesses a crime, stress and fear are normal emotions that could easily cause them to forget specific details.

During a police lineup, it’s customary for an officer to give the witness subtle hints as to who to pick. The police officer might make comments or even facial gestures indicating one person in the lineup. The eyewitness can become confused and choose that person.

Some eyewitnesses are racially biased and choose a person of color in a lineup. With an all-Black lineup, they might pick the person with the darkest skin tone due to racial bias.

Challenging eyewitness testimony

Regardless of the crime, if a person faces charges, they need a good criminal defense to help their case. The defense can argue against the eyewitness account of the incident and point out that stress was a factor and that they couldn’t accurately recall the events.

Witnesses must be able to see criminal activity clearly, so the defense can challenge the person’s view if there is poor visibility or poor lighting. The defendant’s clothing may also be a factor; for instance, if they were wearing a mask or hood, it would be harder to see their face.

Depending on the circumstances, witness bias could be a strong defense. This is often the case with defendants who are people of color.

Another defense could focus on how police influenced the witness during the police lineup. If an officer gave the person hints, it could result in an innocent person being chosen as the suspect.

You’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. The same can be said for eyewitness testimony; it’s not always reliable.