There are few things in trials that match the power of eyewitness testimony. Witnesses can place criminals at the scene of a crime. Their words, voices and gestures can add emotion to the jury’s understanding of the events. And they can send people to jail for crimes they never committed.
That was the case in the conviction of the 81-year-old man who was recently released from prison. According to the Carolina Public Press, the man served 43 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, all because witnesses placed him at the scene of the crime and named him as the shooter.
5 problems with eyewitness testimony
Experts have known about the problems with eyewitness testimony for years. Scientific American published a seminal article about the problem in 2010. It noted that since the courts began to use DNA evidence, lawyers have overturned hundreds of wrongful convictions. Seventy-three percent of those wrongful convictions were based on eyewitness testimony.
Why do witnesses so often get things wrong? It’s rarely because they’re lying or acting maliciously. Instead, it’s because human memory is imperfect, and we can believe-and remember-things that never happened. Additionally, as experts note, some of the circumstances of crime scenes can make it harder to remember things correctly, including:
- The stress they cause witnesses
- Criminals’ use of disguises such as masks or wigs
- Racial differences that play against inherent memory bias
- Average-looking suspects
- Police lineups that draw unfair attention toward a single individual
It was this last point that the lawyers with the Duke Innocence Project recently pursued. They learned that the 81-year-old man had been the only suspect in the lineup that was wearing a coat. A grocery store employee who had been at the scene had said he saw a man in a coat. The sheriff gave one man-and only one man-a coat to wear in the lineup. And that man was wrongfully jailed for 43 years.
What can you do?
If you ever find yourself in a police lineup, you have the right to an attorney. A good defense lawyer can help make sure the police run the lineup fairly. If the police run the lineup unfairly, a lawyer can point this out in court.
There are also ways that a lawyer can convince juries to ignore bad eyewitness testimony. The lawyer might find the holes in the witness’ testimony, point out a bias or show how hard it would have been for the witness to see anything in the first place. There are plenty of reasons juries should be skeptical of eyewitness testimony, but most people only get one chance to convince them of the truth. You want to make it count.