Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony

EyewitnessThere was a time when eyewitness testimony was considered the best evidence in a criminal case.  But recent scientific developments have cast doubt on the reliability of eyewitness testimony.  Surveys of jurors in criminal cases show that jurors place great weight on the testimony of eyewitnesses. This can be dangerous because jurors will put greater weight on the testimony of an eyewitness and disregard other powerful and compelling evidence of innocence.  Several high-profile cases in which defendants were convicted based on eyewitness testimony were later overturned after it was proven that the defendants were not guilty. Kyle Bloodsworth was convicted of the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl based on the testimony of five eyewitness.  He was later cleared of the rape and murder after DNA testing proved that he was innocent.

Eyewitness testimony is based on the human memory.  To determine the reliability of eyewitness testimony, you must understand how the human memory works.  Most people think that the human memory is like a video recorder.  They believe that the human memory records the events and just plays them back exactly how they happened.  But researchers have discovered that this is not how the human memory actually works. Researchers believe that the human memory is more like a giant puzzle.  It seems like pieces of material are put together by the human brain in order to create a memory, or a narrative, of what happened.  That puzzle can be manipulated by questioning from defense attorneys or from other pieces of material that the person who is recalling the events is exposed to.  In addition, the accuracy of someone’s memory can be affected by psychological issues or substance abuse issues that the person providing eyewitness testimony may be suffering from.  In controlled studies, researchers have been able to create false memories in individuals by introducing pieces of information that did not actually occur.  The scientific studies have changed the way the legal system is dealing with eyewitness testimony.  In recent years, there has been a steady movement in the courts to allow expert testimony to be presented before a jury so that they can understand the true significance of eyewitness testimony.  The expert testimony is giving juries a more balanced and greater understanding of eyewitness testimony so that juries may be able to give a more measured response to such testimony.

Earlier this year, the Illinois Supreme Court addressed the issue of eyewitness testimony.  The court looked at the murder conviction of a man who had been convicted of the murder of a friend.  The only evidence in the case was the eyewitness testimony of a witness and a statement made by the victim identifying the defendant as the shooter.  When the defendant’s attorney sought to introduce expert testimony at trial to contest the accuracy and reliability of the eyewitness testimony, the trial court did not allow the expert testimony to be presented.  In overturning the murder conviction, the court cited the scientific evidence that we discussed earlier in this article along with the number of convictions later overturned after defendants were exonerated by DNA evidence.  The court pointed out that since 1989 there have been 150 wrongful convictions in Illinois. One-third of those wrongful convictions were based on mistaken eyewitness testimony.  The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that if prosecutors wanted to retry the defendant, the trial court must allow expert testimony to be introduced concerning the reliability of the eyewitness testimony.

Last month a Cook County jury at the Rolling Meadows Courthouse found a man not guilty of murder in a case based on eyewitness testimony.  The only direct evidence offered by the state was the eyewitness testimony of a witness who testified that he saw the defendant walking away from the scene of the murder.  The defense presented an expert witness who testified that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable and can be influenced by information presented to the eyewitness before and after they witnessed the event.

James Dimeas is an award winning criminal defense attorney and author with more than 24 years of experience aggressively representing his clients in criminal cases.  If you have a criminal case in Illinois, contact me in Chicago (312-229-5500), DuPage and Kane (630-504-2096) or Lake (847-696-6458) for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your legal options.

Additional Resources:

Why Science Tells Us Not To Rely on Eyewitness Accounts, Scientific American, Hal Arkowitz, Scott O. Lilienfeld, January 1, 2010.

The People of the State of Illinois v. Eduardo Lerma, 2016 IL 118496, Illinois Supreme Court, January 22, 2016.

Man Found Not Guilty in 2014 Palatine Murder, The Daily Herald, Marco Lopez, September 9, 2016.