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Eyewitness testimonies aren’t as reliable as you might think

In 1981, Alan Crotzer was charged and convicted of sexual battery, kidnapping, burglary, aggravated assault, robbery and attempted robbery. Victim eyewitness testimony contributed to his conviction. The Florida courts sentenced Crotzer —who pleaded not guilty —to 130 years in prison.

DNA evidence exonerated him in 2006, after he’d served half his life behind bars. Crotzer was innocent.

According to a report by the Florida Innocence Commission, “eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions.” Since its introduction in the 1990s, DNA testing has helped overturn more than 200 convictions nationwide. More than half of those were based on eyewitness testimonies.

Turns out, eyewitnesses aren’t as reliable as people thought.

The science of eyewitness testimony

While eyewitness testimonies might sound compelling to a jury, they can be inaccurate. Some scientifically proven problems with eyewitness testimonies include:

  • Unreliable memory: According to a 1997 study by University of Washington Law Professor Elizabeth Loftus, some police interrogators can actually push people into creating false memories.
  • Distracted thinking: Witnesses are in an obvious state of stress, anxiety and sometimes physical pain, which can affect their ability to recall events clearly.
  • Misdirected focus: Witnesses tend to focus on the weapon(s) instead of the perpetrator, so their memory of the perpetrator may be less accurate.
  • Forgotten details: Lagtime between police lineups and the actual trial can blur witness memory.

Times are changing

In 2017, Florida passed a bill to tighten police lineup restrictions. This requires a “blind” photo lineup, during which the officer giving the lineup either doesn’t know the suspect’s identity, or can’t see the photos. This way, the officer cannot react in any way.

Witnesses are informed of these “blind” circumstances. Witnesses are also informed that the perpetrator might not even be in the lineup. They must acknowledge this information in writing.

Over 20 other states have adopted the “blind” lineup procedure.

As illustrated above, eyewitness misidentification can lead to serious consequences. These include wrongful convictions, undeserved prison time and a tarnished reputation. Worse, these consequences are avoidable. If you feel that you or a loved one have been wrongly identified for a crime, an experienced criminal defense attorney can make all the difference for your future.

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