Eyewitness testimony is a crucial element of the criminal justice system. Prosecutors have always relied on eyewitnesses to secure convictions and guilty pleas.
However, according to the Innocence Project, more than 70 percent of overturned wrongful convictions stem from false or inaccurate eyewitness testimony.
Do eyewitnesses tell the truth?
People who witness crimes and come forward to tell their stories are often good people with intentions of doing the right thing. However, witness testimony is often imperfect on several levels. When bystanders witness a crime, it is often sudden and surprising, and they may not immediately understand what they saw. Other compromising factors for witness accounts include:
- Lighting conditions
- Poor vision
- Stress, duress or elevated emotions
- Conscious or unconscious biases (racial or classist prejudice)
Additionally, intentional or unintentional suggestions from law enforcement when interviewing witnesses or conducting lineups to identify suspects can contaminate the memories of the witness, evoking a false retelling of the event or misidentification.
Are eyewitness statements effective in court?
Judges and jurors rely on witnesses when determining verdicts in criminal cases, but they do not always understand how much weight to give witness testimony among the other facts of the case. Under the right circumstances, witness testimony can be very reliable. However, few investigations are perfect, and it is important for the defense to scrutinize witness accounts carefully.
If you are facing a criminal charge in Virginia, witnesses can provide powerful evidence against you. Therefore, it is important to understand how witness testimony can impact your case.