Crimes are committed everywhere all the time. But a lot of these crimes go unpunished due mostly to the lack of evidence. Thankfully, there are eyewitnesses who can provide their accounts of the crimes committed. This is where eyewitness testimony becomes a crucial part of an investigation and litigation.
Eyewitnesses are persons who witnessed a crime being committed against them or another person. In court, they will frequently be asked if they could identify the suspect. To be able to be an effective eyewitness, they need to rely on their memory of the incident, be it murder, robbery, assault or other felony. Because of this though, eyewitnesses can only be credible if their version of the story is comprehensible, consistent and cohesive.
There are two types of eyewitness memory: recall and recognition. Recall memory is when a person provides important details of an event or person he witnessed. Recognition memory, on the other hand, is when a witness corroborates with another person’s account of what happened. Any eyewitness testimony can be studied using one or all of three methods: laboratory simulations, naturalistic environments and archival data. Although an eyewitness’ memory of an incident may be obtained through hypnosis, it is usually unacceptable in court.
To better understand the role of eyewitness testimony in court proceedings, let us take a look at its pros and cons.
List of Pros of Eyewitness Testimony
1. Eyewitness testimony can influence jury decision.
A jury’s role in a court hearing is to identify credibility issues and assess the truth of the witness’ statement. So by having credible witnesses under oath, the jury will be able to determine whether the defendant is guilty of the crime he or she is being accused of.
2. Eyewitness testimony can shed light into the sequence of the events that took place while the crime was committed.
This helps the jury and the lawyers better understand everything about the case as the eyewitness testimony explains how the crime was committed, who was involved and where it happened. As a result, a motive could be established based on the witness’ account of the story. Consequently, it will help the judge come up with the best decision in the end.
3. Eyewitness testimony can be used as evidence in court.
A witness’ report of what took place on that fateful day can prove that the crime was really committed. It can be used to determine how, when and where the felony was committed. Most importantly, it can provide support of the criminal case filed in court, i.e., identifying the weapon used, offering additional information that will help the court identify the perpetrator, etc., persuading the judge and jurors to convict the suspect.
4. Eyewitness testimony is generally reliable.
When the testimony is obtained and reported right after the event took place, the witness’ memory is still fresh, which means that there is a higher chance that his or her account of the incident is still vivid in his or her mind. This makes his or her testimony more reliable. When this is presented to the authorities and in court, the judge and the investigators will be able to better understand and envision exactly what occurred. As a result, they will be able to determine the best course of action to take.
List of Cons of Eyewitness Testimony
1. Eyewitness testimony may not always be accurate.
Several studies have been conducted in the past on human memory and on people’s capacity to remember events and details, some of which were erroneously recorded and stored in their minds. In the mid-70s, Elizabeth Loftus did experiments that showed the effects of introducing false facts into a person’s memory by a third-party. The results reveal that some of the subjects false remembered seeing images that were not there during a particular incident. The experiments also involved injecting words in certain questions that lead the subjects to incorrectly provide accounts of what they saw. All of this show that sometimes eyewitness testimonies may not be accurate.
2. Eyewitness testimony rely only on people’s memory.
The problem with this is that human memory has the vulnerability to be bias, especially when a third-party uses trigger statements that could cloud a witness’ better judgment and most importantly, memory of what really happened. Aside from that, it has been proven that retelling a story in a neutral fashion is rarely done, affecting one’s memory. Oftentimes, stories are retold in a way that is tailored to the listener, distorting the memory.
3. Eyewitness testimony can have parts that are made up by the witness due to nervousness or fear.
Pressure can also affect a person’s memory. Some people feel pressured when they everyone else in the room is counting on them. This might lead them into saying something that is wrong or inaccurate. Oftentimes, emotions get the best of us. When that happens, people might remember things or events differently. They might not be able to accurately recall the sequence of events or crucial details that will help solve the case.
4. Eyewitness testimony can convict the wrong person.
Leading questions can make a witness or a victim “recall” things, events or persons that never occurred. Because a jury puts great emphasis and value on a witness’ memory of the incident, despite the lack of physical evidence, the testimony can put the wrong person behind bars. Even if the falsely convicted felon may be freed from jail, the decision of the court will forever change his or her life. He or she could lose his dignity, job or even his or her love ones.
Since the olden days, the court has always relied on eyewitness testimony so much so that it has been built into the judicial system. This means that “wrong” accounts of a crime could affect not only the life of the “suspect”, but also the victims. Fortunately, there is the opposing counsel’s right to cross examine a witness, which is a crucial part of the legal process. This also places in check the jury’s common sense when it comes to weighing eyewitness testimonies and physical evidence.
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer and banker. She is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.