The definition of eyewitness testimony is “Testimony of witnesses, including crime victims, who viewed events of interest to investigations.” (Rick M. Steinmann) During crime scene interviews, investigators are looking to find reliable evidence from eyewitnesses, this includes victims of crimes. Since eyewitness testimony tends to carry weight with juries, the accuracy of these testimonies is crucial. “Developments in forensic testing have established beyond any doubt that eyewitness testimony has the potential to be dangerously unreliable.” (George Vallas) Even though eyewitness testimony can be important in cases that have no other evidence, eyewitness testimony is unreliable because eyewitness testimony and misidentification is one of the leading causes of wrongful conviction in the United States
There are several different factors contributing to unreliable eyewitness testimony including stress, weapon focus, violence, own race bias, and exposure duration. If an eyewitness has high stress levels this will have negative effects on their ability to recall specific details from the crime and their ability to make a correct identification. High stress levels can be caused by a multitude of reasons. The Presence of a weapon during a crime usually has an effect on eyewitness’s due to them being mainly focused on the weapon rather than the crime itself. Similar to stress, “witnesses to violent crimes may be less likely to accurately identify and remember the face of the perpetrator than witnesses to non-violent crimes.” (George Vallas) Another factor is own race biased, this refers to the fact that some individuals have “less difficulty remembering and identifying faces of their own race than those of a less familiar race.” (George Vallas) Mistaken identification is greater in a cross-race than in an own race identification. The accuracy of correctly identifying is associated with the amount of time the witness was exposed to or the amount of time the witness has to view the perpetrator of the crime. Some studies suggest that the longer amount of time a witness has to view the perpetrator, the more accurate their identification will be.
Eyewitness misidentification is one of the leading causes of wrongful conviction in the United States. “According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness testimony played a role in a surprising 75% of the convictions that have been overturned as a result of DNA evidence. In 50% of those cases, eyewitness testimony was the central cause of conviction.” (George Vallas) During many cases innocent people are convicted due to the fact that jurors seem to pay more attention to eyewitness testimony/ identification rather than actual evidence. “Cases of proven wrongful conviction of innocent people have consistently shown that mistaken eyewitness identification is responsible for more of these wrongful convictions than all of the other causes combined. (Gary Wells) According to A. Daniel Yarmey, “next to an actual conviction, eyewitness testimony has been described as the most incriminating evidence that can be introduced against an accused.”
“Because, eyewitness evidence is frequently the sole or primary evidence in a criminal case, the justice system needs to enhance the ability of judges, other legal professionals, and jurors to assess its accuracy.” (Richard A. Wise & Martin A. Safer) During a trial it is important for judges to be able to assess the accuracy in order to evaluate its probative value in criminal cases and possibly prevent wrongful conviction. There are four steps to analyzing the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. Starting with step one, for law enforcement to obtain that maximum amount of accurate information during an interview, this will help prevent wrongful conviction. The second step is to assess whether the identification procedures in the case were unbiased and fair. Step three is to evaluate how the eyewitness factors during the crime affected the accuracy, such as stress, weapon focus, violence, own race bias, and exposure duration. And the final step is to make conclusions about the accuracy of the eyewitness testimony in the case. These four steps show the importance of conducting unbiased and fair interviews and identification procedures.
“Eyewitness testimony is indispensable to the proper functioning of the criminal justice system.” (George Vallas) Accurate eyewitness identification and testimony can be very important to those court cases that have no other evidence. Within recent years there has been new ways to promote accurate eyewitness identifications. There have been changes in police procedures that have been recommended to reduce error. “randomized display of photos or lineup participants rather than commonly used simultaneous display. Instead of viewing all photos or lineup participants together as group, witnesses look at each individual photo or line up participant separately from others.” (Rick M. Steinmann) With this procedure it is less likely that it will result in misidentification. There are now methods for analyzing the accuracy of eyewitness testimony in criminal cases. With this, investigators should be able to eliminate inaccurate eyewitness testimony.
“Criminal cases where eyewitness testimony is the sole or primary evidence of the defendant’s guilt pose the greatest danger that erroneous eyewitness testimony will result in wrongful conviction.” (Richard A. Wise & Martin A. Safer)