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Are eyewitnesses reliable in a criminal trial?

On Behalf of | Jun 16, 2023 | Criminal Defense

In a criminal trial, eyewitness testimony is a statement made by a person who observed an event firsthand. They can provide valuable details regarding an incident that may sway a jury or judge.

However, the question arises: should the defense rely on this form of evidence?

Benefits of eyewitness testimony

Eyewitness testimony can play a crucial role in a criminal trial. It gives the jury a firsthand account of the incident, providing them with a vivid, often emotional perspective of the event. This can humanize the facts and provide context beyond the cold, hard evidence presented.

Moreover, eyewitness testimony can provide details overlooked in initial investigations. Sometimes, these details may fill in gaps in the narrative that other evidence cannot. Also, if an eyewitness is credible and consistent, their testimony can substantially bolster a case.

Limitations of eyewitness testimony

Despite these potential advantages, there are substantial reasons to approach eyewitness testimony with caution. Psychological studies show that memory is not always reliable. Stress, the passage of time or suggestion can distort memories, and an eyewitness may unintentionally provide inaccurate information.

Eyewitnesses can also misidentify individuals, especially in high-pressure or traumatic situations. In fact, out of roughly 350 wrongful convictions that the courts overturned due to DNA evidence, there was eyewitness misidentification in nearly 70 percent of them.

People are susceptible to leading questions and may unconsciously alter their memories to fit a narrative. These errors may lead to false convictions, and as such, courts, juries and the accused should treat this type of evidence with care.

Moreover, bias or prejudice can impact an eyewitness’s account, even if unconsciously. Eyewitnesses may also be subject to manipulation or coercion, consciously or not, which can lead to false or misleading testimony.

Ultimately, while eyewitness testimony can be a compelling part of a criminal trial, it does have its limitations.