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Eyewitness testimony often results in wrongful convictions

Experts in psychology and law enforcement are increasingly worried about the reliability of eyewitnesses asked to identify the perpetrator of a crime.

In Texas, felonies consist of serious crimes such as murder, drug trafficking, aggravated assault and armed robbery. Not surprisingly, felonies carry severe penalties which can result in considerable prison time upon a conviction. Often, felony suspects are convicted based upon eyewitness testimony. A recent news article published in the Huffington Post noted that there are few moments in the American criminal law system as dramatic as having the eyewitness to a crime point his or her figure at a defendant during a trial. However, many experts are increasingly concerned about the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

Eyewitnesses undoubtedly play an important and often pivotal role in the administration of justice by helping hold to account the perpetrators of crimes. However, the National Institute of Justice recognizes that even "the most well-intentioned" eyewitnesses can either identify the wrong person or fail to identify the actual perpetrator of a crime. Misidentification by eyewitnesses is said to be the leading cause of wrongful convictions in more than 75 percent of the first DNA exonerations which occurred in the United States. In Texas, the Innocence Project has concluded that of those ultimately exonerated of a crime they did not commit, 80 percent were shipped off to prison due to an eyewitness error.

The criminal justice system tends to over-rely on eyewitness testimony for convictions. Often, the testimony of one eyewitness, when coupled with a dubious alibi, is quite enough to convince law enforcement officers of a person's guilt and send the matter to the prosecutor. Some experts have called attention to flaws in eyewitness identifications. Roy S. Malpass, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso, was quoted in Discover Magazine as saying that most people, in order to be accommodating to law enforcement, feel compelled to pick a photo from a lineup and ID a suspect even if they are not actually certain that the guilty party is pictured among the photos.

There are ways to minimize errors. In one experiment, Professor Malpass found that simply saying "the suspect may or may not be in this lineup" reduced wrong choices by 45 percent. Additional research has convinced psychologists that errors are minimized when the law enforcement officer who shows an eyewitness a photo array is not the officer who is working directly on the case. Unfortunately, attempts to minimize misidentifications by witnesses are often not employed.

Factors causing ID errors

In an article published in Scientific American, authors Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilenfeld conclude that eyewitness testimony is "fickle" and "all too often, shockingly inaccurate." Arkowitz and Likenfeld point to the following as some of the various factors that tend to sometimes make identifications by eyewitnesses inaccurate:

  • High emotional stress on witnesses at either the crime scene or during a subsequent identification process.
  • Distraction and anxiety caused by the presence of a weapon being used in the commission of a crime.
  • Disguises used by the perpetrator of a crime.
  • A perpetrator's lack of distinctive physical characteristics such as moles, birthmarks or tattoos.
  • The relatively brief viewing time for an eyewitness during a lineup or other identification procedure.

Legal assistance

It is a serious matter to be charged with a felony that may result in considerable prison time if convicted. If you have been accused of having committed a crime, you need to immediately contact a Texas attorney experienced in handling criminal law cases. An attorney who specializes in criminal law can mount an aggressive defense by vigorously challenging eyewitnesses whose testimony is inconsistent or indecisive.

Keywords: eyewitness testimony, ID errors, felony, wrongful conviction, criminal defense

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