What affects the reliability of California eyewitness identifications?

Due to the way the human mind remembers events, a number of factors could affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and result in wrongful convictions.

Eyewitness testimony has long been considered by law enforcement officers, juries and judges in the Tri-county area, and elsewhere, to be one of the most solid forms of evidence. However, research and time has shown that eyewitness statements are not always as reliable as they seem. In fact, 70 percent of the wrongful convictions that were overturned through DNA testing were based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, according to the Innocence Project.

When people remember events, many believe they are replaying their memories in their minds exactly as they occurred. Scientific American reports, however, that a psychologist and leading memory researcher likens remembering to putting a puzzle together. Thus, numerous factors may affect the accuracy of eyewitness recollections.

Psychological factors

For many people, witnessing a crime may be upsetting. Consequently, it may create anxiety. Due to the stress of the experience, how people perceive and recall events may be altered.

The use of a weapon may also affect a witness' recall of an alleged crime. For example, a person who witnesses an assault with a deadly weapon may focus more on the weapon itself rather than the perpetrator. Thus, he or she may be able to provide a detailed description of the weapon that was used, but his or her description of the perpetrator may be less detailed.

Physical characteristics

It is common for perpetrators of crimes to disguise their looks. They may wear glasses or a hat, or change their hair color or style. This is typically in an effort to mask their identities from witnesses and the authorities. As such, witnesses may falsely identify someone who looks like the person they saw commit a crime as the perpetrator.

Crime scene factors

Factors at the scene of the crime may also affect witness identifications and recall. For instance, a witness who saw the perpetrator for an extended period of time may be able to provide a more accurate identification than a witness who only briefly saw the perpetrator of crime. Typically, the longer a witness is able to view a perpetrator, the more details they are able to observe and later describe.

Additionally, the lighting in the area and the distance between the witness and the person who committed the crime may also contribute to inaccurate witness identifications. This is because in poor lighting or at significant distances, witnesses may not get as good of a look at an alleged crime perpetrator.

Investigative procedures

Although there are procedures in place to help limit witness contamination, investigative procedures used by the authorities may sometimes contribute to eyewitness misidentifications. If the law enforcement officer conducting a live line up knows who the suspect is, he or she may unintentionally indicate to the witness who to finger for a crime. By the same token, using pictures of different sizes or with different lighting during a photo lineup may make one picture stand out over the others. Additionally, Science magazine points out that questioning by investigators may unintentionally lead to false memories. This may result in inaccurate statements. Consequently, a witness may misidentify a person as a suspect, which could lead to a wrongful conviction.

Working with an attorney

For many Californians who are accused of criminal offenses, eyewitness testimony may seem insurmountable. However, there are situations in which they may have been wrongfully accused. Thus, those who have been charged with crimes may benefit from obtaining legal representation. A lawyer may help them build a defense, which may include questioning the accuracy of eyewitness statements.