The shortsightedness of eyewitness testimony

It has been said that the eyes don’t lie, but when it comes to eyewitness testimony in New Jersey, the outcome is not always crystal clear. When eyewitnesses are asked to choose suspects from a criminal lineup, there are factors other than their ability to recall faces that come into play. These factors can produce a false positive.

Is seeing believing?

Eyewitness testimony is a routine process of many court cases, and some charges have turned into convictions based on it. The problem is that witnesses to crimes don’t always get it right. According to Innocence Project, a legal aid project of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, hundreds of people have been falsely convicted due to flawed eyewitness testimony. To date, the Project has freed 174 people wrongly convicted by this process. They were exonerated by DNA evidence that contradicted a positive identification.

The Innocence Project has firsthand knowledge of how these testimonies based on sight have devastating effects on innocent people. The obstacles to positively identifying the wrong person can be affected by:

  • Crime scene duress
  • Fear of retaliation
  • Difference in appearances, such as that of wearing a mustache or other facial modification
  • Confusion about the exact color of the skin or height

To seek a just outcome of eyewitness testimony, the Innocence Project introduced legislative proposals to increase effectiveness when identifying purported criminals. If these proposals are adopted, juries will be able to watch a videotape of the ID process and assess whether the procedure was flawed. States have recognized the issue of imprisoning innocent people based on faulty IDs and have shown an interest in revamping the process.

Closing the gap

Educating jurors is part of the solution. Experience shows that jurors tend to have more confidence in the eyewitness who claims absolute certainty in identifying the perpetrator. However, research demonstrates that such eyewitnesses are only slightly more accurate than those whose confidence was not so high. Thus, identifying suspects within the confines of clearly defined rules will help to curb misidentification.

Science has come a long way in confirming and exonerating those who have been charged with crimes based on eyewitness testimony. DNA evidence is undoing the damage that some of the eyewitness-based convictions have caused and is giving the wrongly convicted a new lease on life.

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