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How accurate are eyewitness testimonies?

On Behalf of | Nov 3, 2016 | Criminal Defense |

Eyewitness testimonies have been used in criminal trials for centuries, and someone who believes he or she saw you commit a crime could have a strong effect on the outcome of your case. However, according to the Innocence Project, DNA testing has resulted in hundreds of exonerations. In over 70 percent of these cases, people were sent to prison for crimes they did not commit because of the faulty testimony of an eyewitness.

In spite of this kind of proof that eyewitness testimony is often flawed, law enforcement, juries and the court system as a whole continue to place a high value on this form of evidence.

Problematic identification lineup processes

After a person witnesses a crime, he or she is often asked to view potential suspects from a police lineup. This may occur in a live lineup, where a group of potential suspects are asked to stand in a room, or through the use of a series of photographs or sketches. However, these processes can be flawed – research has shown that many law enforcement agencies do not have any written policies for how lineups should be conducted.

As a result, your picture may appear different in some way from the others, causing you to stand out. During a live lineup, the other people may not have similar physical features to you, or officers may influence the witness’s identification by, for example, telling them they did a good job.

Influencing factors

There are many factors that may affect the eyewitness’s accuracy – for example, the amount of duress the witness was under during the event. Studies have also shown that the presence of a weapon can greatly affect what the witness is able to accurately recall. Other factors include:

  • Lighting
  • Time of day
  • Distance from the crime scene/perpetrator
  • Presence of alcohol or drugs
  • Witness’s age at the time

There is also a risk that the witness has a bias against people of your race or ethnicity. If you match the skin color of the perpetrator, for example, this could put you at risk of being identified by the witness – even if you don’t match the rest of the physical description.


When eyewitness testimony is presented that seems to incriminate you, your defense may involve a careful examination of the details that surround the witness. This might include how much time passed between the event and the identification process, the existence of any suggestions from investigators, the witness’ frame of mind and the credence and weight of the account itself. The best way to protect yourself is to meet with an attorney who is experienced in handling criminal cases and can provide you with counsel.


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