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The inconsistency of eyewitness accounts

On Behalf of | Oct 11, 2021 | Criminal Defense

In Illinois, it’s not unusual for the strength of a prosecutor’s case to stand on eyewitness accounts. That can seem intimidating, especially if you’re a defendant. However, it’s important to note that eyewitness consistency is never a sure thing in criminal law.

Eyewitness inconsistency

How the court reacts to eyewitness testimony by itself is inconsistent. Jurors often perceive witnesses as untrustworthy as often as the jury looks at them positively.

Unfortunately, eyewitness accounts are responsible for a lot of wrongful convictions. Research of wrongful convictions by Ohio State University determined that more than half of eyewitness testimony was rife with mistakes leading to wrongful sentencing. Despite this, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and jurors all see eyewitness testimony as their most persuasive form of evidence in a criminal law proceeding.

Science and eyewitnesses

Science has had a dynamic impact in proving that eyewitnesses are not always reliable. In 1984, one man received a death sentence, and the prosecutor’s strongest evidence was the testimony of five witnesses. Nine years later, DNA proved that the man was innocent. Over the years, DNA evidence has overturned more than 70% of almost 350 criminal convictions that heavily relied on eyewitness testimony.

Law enforcement and eyewitnesses

Eyewitnesses often pull suspects out of police lineups. They also help develop police sketches and provide formal statements that solidify charges. If the case goes to trial, an eyewitness may take the stand.

Unfortunately, memories, especially those developed under stress, are susceptible to human error. The brain is not a recorder that plays back what the eye and ear remember. How people recall shifts, which is why prosecutors want eyewitnesses to repeat their statements word-for-word.

Given the law’s tendency to lean on faulty eyewitness accounts, more needs to be done to improve the accuracy of eyewitness identification. There are small steps moving the law in this direction, including better reliance on DNA, but the justice system has a way to travel before ensuring that wrongful testimony stops sending the innocent to prison.