The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony
A Philadelphia news station recently released footage of a robbery in progress at a local restaurant in West Philadelphia. Although the footage is not entirely clear in showing the suspect’s physical features for a solid identification, there was indeed a video in this case.
Although perhaps increasingly rare with today’s technology, there are some instances in which the prosecuting attorney in a case simply has eyewitness testimony and nothing else. However, eyewitness accounts are not the best type of evidence and can sometimes lead to wrong arrests or even convictions.
Reports after reports have stated and presented that eyewitness testimony, accounts, and identifications are simply not reliable. In fact, there is even an entire nonprofit project and endeavor called the Innocence Project dedicated to using hard science, such as DNA testing, to exonerate individuals that were previously incorrectly incarcerated—often due to faulty eyewitness testimony.
There are assorted reasons as to why eyewitness testimony might be unreliable. Such reasons range from faulty memories, especially since trials usually occur months—if not years—after an incident occurs, biased witnesses, brain tricks, and improper police procedures.
When law enforcement officers are first trying to identify or solidify the identification of a suspect, they may use a police lineup or even a photo array with a witness who claimed that he or she saw the suspect. While the pre-trial identification in and of itself may not necessarily be evidence that is brought up during trial, the prosecution may consider using that same witness who made the initial identification on the stand in trial to identify the suspect again in the courtroom.
Pennsylvania law states that every person is competent enough to be a witness on the stand, unless that person is disqualified by an exception, which are narrow exceptions. What this means is that there is room for error and misidentification even during trial.
What An Attorney Can Do
The benefits of having an attorney as soon as the police suspect you of a crime and having an attorney at trial are numerous. First, an attorney can ensure that your rights in connection with any police lineups or other identification methods are protected.
Second, at trial, the attorney can strategically plan and determine how to examine the eyewitnesses. As we discussed, human eyewitness recollections are faulty. When the conditions surrounding what was witnessed are poor—e.g. bad weather, bad lighting—then the recollection is faultier. A good criminal defense attorney can identify that and point it out to the jury.
Do You or a Loved One Need Help?
If you or a loved one have been accused of or charged with a crime, you will not want faulty eyewitness testimony to be the reason why you or your loved one are incorrectly sentenced or convicted. Make sure to reach out to van der Veen, O’Neill, Hartshorn, and Levin in Philadelphia to fight on your behalf and protect your rights both before trial and during trial.