Eyewitness Testimony – The Eyes Can Be Deceiving

by Diane Dimond on February 15, 2016

Not Always Reliable

Not Always Reliable

How many times have you heard someone say, “Believe me, I know it’s true. I saw it with my own eyes!” When someone passionately tells us they were an eyewitness to an event we are programmed to believe their story.

It happens in courtrooms all across the country every day. An eyewitness takes the stand, puts a hand on the bible and swears to tell the truth about what they saw. In sometimes vivid detail they tell their story, point the finger of blame at a defendant and proclaim they are 100% sure about the identification. This compelling, first-hand testimony sways juries and has resulted in countless convictions. Some include sentences of death.

So how trustworthy is an eye-witness, anyway?

Not very, it turns out.

Various studies show that eyewitness mis-identification frequently happens and for a variety of reasons. Witnesses tend to want to be helpful but they might have seen the perpetrator for just an instant or from a long distance or in bad lighting yet they make an ID anyway. Accurate identification also depends on the witness’s age, eyesight, race bias or whether they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Victims something something

Victims and Witnesses Are Often Distracted

You might think that people caught up in crime would have a razor sharp memory of what happened. But a paper published by the American Bar Association reports that those involved in violent high-stress crimes – especially when a weapon is used — suffer from impaired recall because their focus is diverted to the weapon not to the face of the person holding it.

Witnesses not interviewed at the scene – those who come forward later — may have seen the suspect on television, subconsciously tainting their choice. And there are attention-seekers who appear because they want to be part of the action and not because they actually witnessed anything.

Then, there are the things that can go wrong with handling witnesses at the station house. The witness (or victim-witness) is often shown a photo array of suspects but if the pictures aren’t all of similar size and color the witness’s choice could be affected. If only one photo is in color, for example, it is more likely to be chosen over all the others.  The ABA paper  concludes, “Witnesses select the wrong suspect from a photo lineup roughly a quarter of the time.”

Police Line-Ups Can Be Compromised

Police Line-Ups Can Be Compromised

During a line-up detectives might inadvertently telegraph who they think the criminal is. Or an officer might congratulate a witness for the “good job” in picking the “right person.” That pat on the back could go to reinforce a witness’s erroneous identification.

Aileen P. Clare, a Columbia, South Carolina attorney who has studied witness mis-identification says, “When the suspect is left out of a lineup, witnesses pick an innocent person more than a third of the time—even when told that the suspect may not appear in the lineup.”

That’s pretty chilling odds and proof that some witnesses are highly motivated to help police find justice even if they aren’t crystal clear about what they saw.

According to the Innocence Project the biggest factor in wrongful convictions later proven by DNA testing is faulty witness identification.  Mis-identification plays a role in more than 70% of convictions that are overturned by DNA.  And this includes victims who were face-to-face with their attackers yet later identified the wrong person.

Cotton and Thompson Now Lecture on Eyewitnesses

Cotton and Thompson Lecture on Eyewitnesses

Take the case of Jennifer Thompson of North Carolina. In 1984, during a vicious sexual attack she promised herself to memorize everything she could about her rapist and, if she lived, repeat it in court. She positively identified Ronald Cotton as the man who had put a knife to her throat and been on top of her for 20 minutes. Cotton spent 11 years in prison before another man confessed to the crime when confronted with new DNA evidence. Thompson and Cotton wrote a book about the case and give speeches about witness frailties.

Also in 1984, Kirk Bloodsworth of Maryland was convicted of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl even though there was no physical evidence against him. He was sentenced to die in the gas chamber after five eyewitnesses identified him as the killer. But once DNA testing evolved it proved Bloodsworth was innocent. He was released after serving 9 years. So much for eyewitness accounts!

Television crime dramas often feature dramatic eyewitness court testimony that neatly wraps up a criminal case. In real life it is much more complicated. Maybe it’s time judges include instructions to juries about the fail rate of eyewitness accounts.


Julie Pendley February 16, 2016 at 10:59 pm

I am glad you chose to explore this subject – I see it time and time again while out searching for missing people. We will get a lead that someone has seen the victim, they are POSITIVE it was them, and in many cases they will describe conversations and very specific details that seem so convincing. I am convinced that in a majority of the instances I have encountered, these eyewitnesses just want so desperately to believe that they did see or communicate with our missing person that they convince themselves of the fact. We check every promising lead, but I put little weight on the intelligence until it has been confirmed by video or another verifiable source. It is absolutely TERRIFYING that this same situation seems to be a fixture in the courtroom. What a tough subject – Eyewitness seems so cut and dry, SOMEONE SAW IT HAPPEN!! – or did they? – There is too much on the line to deal in facts that can’t be confirmed, but so much at stake that it could all go horribly wrong if representation isn’t at the top of their game. Dimond churns out yet another thought-provoking gem!

Diane Dimond February 17, 2016 at 6:22 pm

Facebook Friend Carmen Matthews writes:

“And this is one of the reasons why I am against the death penalty.”

Diane Dimond February 17, 2016 at 6:22 pm

Facebook Friend Kurt G. Kaner writes:

“Sure, you should be against the death penalty if the only evidence is eyewitness, but that’s not the case.

Is there any doubt John Wayne Gacy killed multiple children?”

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