Report: Better protection needed against errors in eyewitness testimony

A recent report calls for authorities to make several changes to eyewitness identification procedures to protect against the serious risk of mistakes.

Human memory is imperfect. Many people in Vancouver have learned this firsthand by comparing memories with other people or making mistakes based on incorrect recollections. Still, many people assume that when it comes to traumatic events, such as sex crimes or violent incidents, human memory is accurate. In reality, research shows that memory can be just as flawed in these situations.

Regardless of what a given memory focuses on, human memory is not infallible or static. According to The Washington Post, memories may be inaccurate from the time that they are formed, or they may become distorted over time. This means that eyewitness testimony in criminal cases must be treated with special caution.

Addressing risk factors

Researchers from the National Academy of Sciences recently released a report based on an extensive review of research into human memory and eyewitness testimony. The report notes that, although some issues with eyewitness memory and accuracy cannot be helped, others could be addressed through changes to police identification protocols. These changes include:

  • Videotaping every physical lineup or photo array conducted
  • Giving witnesses instructions stating that the perpetrator may not be present and that, regardless of whether there is an identification, the investigation will continue
  • Performing blind lineups in which the overseeing authority is not aware of the suspect's identity
  • Writing down a statement of the witness's confidence in the identification

These protocols could help prevent witness memories from being influenced during the identification process. The recommended procedures could also capture any uncertainty or hesitation on the part of the witness that might not be evident closer to the alleged offender's trial.

Authorities might be reluctant to make these changes because they may result in fewer identifications. Still, criminal cases involving eyewitness mistakes highlight the serious need for changes such as these.

Grave mistakes

Last year, a Seattle man was released from prison after serving more than 10 years because of a wrongful conviction of burglary and robbery, according to The Seattle Times. The man was convicted primarily on the basis of eyewitness testimony.

There were some apparent issues with the testimony of the witness, who allegedly was attacked and beaten into unconsciousness. The witness stated that the offenders had facial tattoos, and the recently freed man had no facial tattoos. The accuracy of the witness's memory could also have been questionable, based on the duress he was under during the incident; violent crimes and the presence of a weapon can both distract an eyewitness or result in inaccurate memories.

Despite these issues and the accused man's presentation of an alibi, the man was still convicted. Later, three convicted offenders swore in signed statements that the man was not present during the incident. The charges against the man ultimately were dismissed after this new evidence was reviewed.

Preventing false convictions

While this man's wrongful conviction was eventually caught, there may be many more that remain undetected, and eyewitness inaccuracy may be a common cause. In nearly 75 percent of wrongful convictions uncovered through DNA testing, eyewitness errors have been a factor, according to The Seattle Times.

Legal representation can be beneficial for anyone who faces criminal charges that involve or rely on eyewitness testimony. A criminal defense lawyer can provide advice on the best way of handling the charges, based on the circumstances and the available evidence.

Keywords: eyewitness, identification, false, wrongful