Questioning the accuracy of eyewitness testimony in South Carolina

A number of factors may impact the reliability of eyewitness testimony, which may lead to innocent people being convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Often, law enforcement officers in South Carolina, and elsewhere, use statements from eyewitnesses as key evidence in criminal investigations. Historically, this type of testimony has been considered one of the most reliable sources of proof. Research, however, shows the opposite to be true.

In fact, eyewitnesses commonly misidentify people and misremember events. As such, a number of people have been falsely convicted of crimes, including criminal sexual conduct, robbery and murder. The Innocence Project reports that misidentifications by eyewitnesses contributed to more than 70 percent of convictions that were later overturned by DNA testing across the U.S.

What affects the reliability of eyewitness testimony?

Contrary to the commonly held belief, the human mind does not typically work like a video recorder. As such, memories are not recorded and able to be played back exactly as they occurred. Instead, people reconstruct their memories when they recall them, according to Scientific American. Due to the subjectivity of how events are remembered, a number of factors may affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. In general, these factors are categorized as system variables or estimator variables.

System variables

System variables are factors that the criminal justice system can control, according to the American Bar Association. As such, these generally involve the methods law enforcement use to obtain information from a witness' memory. In some cases, authorities may not emphasize steps that have the potential to minimize eyewitness mistakes in their haste to solve a crime.

The main system variables that affect eyewitness reliability include lineups, photo arrays and other identification procedures. For example, a suspect may stand out to a witness if different sized photos, or pictures with different lighting, are used in an array. Likewise, if the law enforcement officer who is conducting a line up knows which person is the suspect, he or she may unintentionally make suggestions to the witness. Additionally, unless authorities specify that the suspect may not be included, witnesses often feel as though they have to choose someone out of a lineup.

Estimator variables

According to the American Bar Association, estimator variables are factors that the criminal justice system cannot control. These types of variables are those, which may impact how eyewitnesses perceive and recall events. Some of the most common factors in this category include the following:

  • The witness' age
  • How far away the witness was from the perpetrator of the crime
  • The area's lighting when the crime took place
  • The amount of time that the witness saw the perpetrator
  • The witness' level of intoxication
  • Whether the witness' race differs from that of the crime's perpetrator

Additionally, other factors, including a perpetrator's personal characteristics, may also affect witness identification. Changing things, such as a person's facial hair, hat, hairstyle or color, may impact how a witness perceives him or her. High stress situations can also impact witness recall and identification. This is especially true in events that involve weapons. In these situations, the witness may have most of his or her focus on the weapon, not on the person who is holding it.

Seeking legal counsel

When South Carolina law enforcement officers do not follow the proper procedures, it can easily taint eyewitness identifications, recollections and testimony. As such, innocent people may be convicted of crimes. In order to avoid a wrongful conviction, it may be of benefit for people who are facing criminal charges to obtain legal representation. An attorney may help them establish a strong defense that may include questioning the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.