How reliable is eyewitness testimony in San Antonio, Texas?

Inaccurate witness testimony causes wrongful convictions, and more than 70 percent of overturned cases are due to mistakes in identifying the perpetrator.

According to the Innocence Project, DNA testing has overturned more than 70 percent of wrongful convictions. What was a primary aspect in prosecuting innocent offenders? Eyewitness testimony. Despite scientific evidence supporting that the memory is sketchy at best, juries still find eyewitness testimony compelling, particularly in cases where someone is harmed, and many rely on it when rendering their decisions.

One Texas man was wrongfully convicted in 1990 for a sexual assault. Part of the case against him relied on eyewitness testimony. DNA testing however, proved his innocence, and he was exonerated of the charges last year after serving 24 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Why do eyewitnesses make mistakes?

Scientific American reports that most people believe that memory works like a video recorder where "the mind records events and then, on cue, plays back an exact replica." This is not the case, however.

Psychologists state that each time a person remembers an event, the mind reconstructs it, i.e., it rebuilds the actual facts. One psychologist compares the reconstruction to putting a puzzle together, and those puzzle pieces can be altered, thereby causing inaccurate testimony. For example, if a woman is the victim of a violent sex crime, she may be so traumatized that her mind will mix up details or blend memories together. This can lead her to misidentify her assailant.

How can memories be altered?

There are two separate variables that play into memory alteration, says the American Bar Association: system variables and estimator variables. The ABA believes the legal system can control the former when it comes to eyewitness testimony but not the latter. The reasons being:

  • Studies have shown that people select the wrong suspect from a police lineup approximately one-quarter to one-third of the time because they automatically assume the right suspect is in there somewhere.
  • If the officer running the lineup knows who the suspect is, he or she might unintentionally suggest the person to be identified.
  • Photos can also be misleading if they are not similar in appearance, as some might unintentionally draw more attention to a person than others.
  • If the police only produce one suspect for identification, this inherently suggests that the person is guilty of the alleged crime.

Examples of estimator variables, or variables that the legal system cannot modify, include the inability to accurately recollect character traits of the alleged perpetrator due to high stress; focusing on a weapon during the crime; and factors such as distance, lighting, how long the witness stared at the suspect and how long after the incident the witness identifies the suspect.

All of these must be considered when it comes to relying upon witness testimony in the conviction of a suspect. If the witness testimony is flawed in any way, it must be brought to the court's attention.

How can a defense attorney help refute eyewitness testimony?

If a defense attorney believes that eyewitness testimony is inaccurate, it is his or her responsibility to discredit the testimony during trial. Statistics and science show that eyewitness testimony can be inaccurate and, consequently, people are convicted for crimes they didn't commit. This is why mounting a solid defense is critical in any criminal matter.

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