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Eyewitness identifications are often unreliable

On Behalf of | Aug 5, 2019 | Criminal Defense |

Juries in South Carolina and around the country tend to find eyewitness testimony extremely persuasive, and this is especially true when witnesses are able to identify criminal defendants with confidence. However, the way that police departments conduct suspect lineups and the inner workings of the human brain can sometimes make witnesses seem far more confident in court than they were when they made the initial identification.

Researchers who have studied eyewitness identifications discovered that the conditions in which lineups are conducted can greatly influence their outcome. Lineup conditions are considered pristine when the officer conducting the lineup does not know who the suspect is and the suspect does not stand out from other members of the lineup in any meaningful way. These conditions can be extremely difficult to replicate in a busy police station, and conducting a pristine lineup may be impossible if the suspect has a distinctive appearance.

Another problem with identifications made using lineups is the natural urge witnesses have to make an identification. People generally want to help the police to solve crimes, but they also do not want to be responsible for sending an innocent person to jail. This is why witnesses are often hesitant or unsure when they identify suspects, but their trepidations usually disappear when police officers congratulate them on doing a good job.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys may ask questions about the way in which a lineup was held and how similar its members looked, but they could avoid directly confronting witnesses about their identifications. This is because people tend to fiercely defend the decisions they have made, and challenging witnesses could prompt them to identify defendants with even greater confidence. Attorneys could also raise doubts about lineup identifications by calling on experts to explain how unreliable memories can be and the pressure witnesses are under in these situations.