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Why eyewitness testimony is so hard to trust in criminal law

by | Mar 21, 2019 | Criminal Defense

How confident are you in your memory? What did you have for lunch last Friday? If you witnessed a crime, how sure are you that you could identify the perpetrator in a police lineup later?

Most people know that human memory is often imperfect. As time passes, details fade away. The power of suggestion, say from police questioning, can change the “facts” that you recall. Criminal cases that rely heavily on eyewitness testimony are notoriously difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.



The ‘cross-race effect’

There is another unfortunate but common problem that many people deal with when identifying someone else. Psychologists say that people often have trouble identifying suspects of races different than their own. This “cross-race effect” recently played a big factor in overturning a New York man’s 2011 conviction for robbery recently.

The man, who is African American, was sentenced to 25 years in prison based in large part on the testimony of the victims, who were white. They each picked the defendant out of separate police lineups. This helped convince the jury despite evidence that the defendant was a mile away when the robbery happened.

On appeal, the defendant’s attorney successfully argued that the trial judge should have instructed the jury about the cross-race effect. On retrial, the jury got that instruction and reportedly deliberated for less than five minutes before finding the man not guilty.

The benefits of talking to a defense lawyer

A careful and tenacious defense strategy can identify weaknesses in the prosecution’s case. No matter how serious the charges against you, there are always things an experienced defense attorney can do to confront the prosecution and protect your civil rights.