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An age-old problem in criminal law: shaky eyewitness testimony

| Jun 1, 2017 | Criminal Defense

The witness — a seemingly solid citizen with no overt reason to fabricate or otherwise manipulate material fact — swears to tell the truth and then points squarely at the seated defendant, telling a jury panel and crowded courtroom that he personally witnessed that person’s unlawful act.

That hypothesized scenario spells a slam-dunk case, right? Especially because, as one commentator in a recent Knoxville News Sentinel report discussing eyewitness identification and criminal convictions notes, “Juries believe eyewitnesses.”

A central point made in that article and buttressed by myriad organizations across the country focused on criminal reform and research stresses this: maybe they shouldn’t.

At least not with a lack of reasoned skepticism that mandates clear and strong proof to support allegations that can put an individual behind bars for decades or even a lifetime.

Memory, notes the above-cited media focus, “doesn’t work like a video recorder.” Rather, it assembles together fragments — like mini-snapshots — of sounds, lights, voices, images and so forth — that are “more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording.”

And there’s an obvious problem that looms potentially large with that when memory reconstruction is attempted, with results that might dictate the future freedom or incarceration of another individual.

Those who believe that false eyewitness identification at trial is a relatively trivial matter might want to readjust their beliefs after considering this: Reportedly, and in cases where wrongful convictions have been reversed through DNA analysis, the innocent persons languishing behind bars were put there primarily because of erroneous eyewitness testimony.

A principal with the national group Innocence Project notes that inaccurate eyewitness identification is “the single greatest cause of the conviction of the innocent.”