Eyewitness Testimony


Everyone has seen TV shows or read news stories where a courageous eyewitness identifies the guilty culprit from across the court room. The perp is found guilty and hauled off to jail, and justice is served. Or is it?

More and more research is showing just how unreliable eyewitness testimony really is when it comes to identifying guilty people in court. This video provides a great example where a room full of people couldn’t properly identify a man they had seen just minutes before:

Time is always an issue:

The video above shows just how many people got the identity of a person wrong after only a little time had passed. In most criminal cases a trial doesn’t happen until months or even years have gone by. In a recent interview with St. Louis Public Radio, psychology professor Steven Smith detailed what happens to a witness over time:

“By the time they get to the stand, they’re not remembering anything. They’re basically rehearsing what they’ve rehearsed before the case,” Smith said. “They know they’ve identified a person, let’s say in a photo spread, or that they’ve remembered events in a certain way. And they go over that and over that and over that in their mind. By the time they get up to the witness stand, generally speaking, they’re remembering having remembered it a hundred times already, rather than the original events.”

Having police create a lineup is always a problem:

Another problem with eyewitness identifications from a lineup is the ability of the police to choose who appears before the witness. Usually the police will put their suspect in the lineup, and the witness will feel pressured to choose someone from it, even if they’re unsure. This problem has been identified in scientific literature since the 1990’s. The U.S. National Research Council has now waded into the issue, with a new report.

Taking eyewitnesses at their word:

None of this means the debate on eyewitness testimony is over. Eyewitnesses will most likely continue to shape criminal prosecutions, meaning the debate will probably rage on for years to come. Without DNA or other forensic evidence, however, we should all be careful at taking eyewitnesses at their word.