Wisconsin eyewitness testimony may not be as reliable as it seems

A number of factors may impact the reliability of eyewitness testimony, which may result in people being wrongfully convicted of crimes.

When investigating a crime that has occurred, law enforcement officers in Delafield, and throughout Wisconsin, often look for eyewitnesses. The statements of people who saw a crime have long been viewed as some of the most accurate sources of proof. Judges and juries are quick to believe the testimony of people who claim to have seen first hand what happened, and who was involved. Research shows, however, that the testimony of eyewitnesses is not always as dependable as it seems.

Often, eyewitnesses misremember events and misidentify people. This has resulted in the wrongful convictions of many innocent people. Scientific American reports that 239 convictions have been overturned since the introduction of DNA evidence in the 1990s. Eyewitness testimony contributed to 73 percent of the original convictions, and one third of these cases rested solely on the testimony of eyewitnesses.

What makes eyewitness testimony unreliable?

There is a common misconception that the human mind works much like a video recorder. People believe that memories are recorded and can be played back and recalled exactly as they happened. However, that is not the case. In fact, there is much subjectivity in how people remember events that occurred. As such, there are numerous factors, which may impact the accuracy and reliability of eyewitness testimony. In general, these factors are separated into two categories - estimator variables and system variables.

Estimator variables

Estimator variables are factors that can impact a person's ability to observe and recollect events. These variables cannot, however, be controlled by the criminal justice system, according to the American Bar Association. Some of the most common estimator variables include the following:

  • The age of the witness
  • The lighting in the area where the crime occurred
  • The distance between the witness and the crime's perpetrator
  • The length of time that the witness had to view the perpetrator of the crime
  • The level of the witness' intoxication
  • If the witness is of a different race than the crime's perpetrator

Furthermore, a witness' recollection may also be impacted in situations that are high stress, such as an assault or homicide. Additionally, changing things, including a person's hat, hairstyle or hair color, or facial hair may also affect how an eyewitness perceives him or her.

System variables

System variables, on the other hand, are those that the criminal justice system can control. These factors generally include the methods that law enforcement use to obtain information from witnesses' memories. In their haste to solve crimes and obtain convictions, authorities may neglect to emphasize steps that are meant to reduce eyewitness errors.

The main types of system variables include identification procedures, such as photo arrays and lineups. For example, the law enforcement officer who is conducting a lineup knows who the suspect is. The agent may inadvertently make suggestions to the witness as to who he or she should pick out. Additionally, unless authorities stress that the suspect may not be included, people often feel compelled to pick a person out of a lineup. Likewise, using photos of different sizes or with different lighting may make a suspect stand out to a witness.

Obtain legal representation

Eyewitness testimony in Wisconsin can be easily tainted, particularly if the authorities do not take the proper precautions. As a result, people may be convicted of crimes that they did not commit. In order to avoid wrongful convictions, it may benefit people facing criminal charges to work with an attorney. A lawyer may help them establish a criminal defense, which may include questioning the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

Keywords: eyewitness, testimony, wrongful, conviction