New York eyewitness testimony – Is it as reliable as it seems?

Numerous factors may affect the reliability of eyewitness identifications and testimony, which may result in wrongful convictions.

Historically, eyewitnesses have played a crucial role in arrests and convictions in New York, and elsewhere. Law enforcement, judges and juries have relied heavily on the statements and identifications of witnesses because they were actually present for, or otherwise a part of, a criminal offense. Recent studies have shown, however, that eyewitness testimony might not be as dependable as it was long thought to be.

In fact, it is common for eyewitnesses to misremember events and misidentify people. This has resulted in many people being erroneously convicted of serious crimes, including murder, assault and robbery. The Innocence Project reports that more than 70 percent of the wrongful convictions overturned using DNA evidence, involved eyewitness misidentifications.

What impacts the accuracy of eyewitness statements?

Any number of factors may contribute to the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. This is because human minds do not function like video recorders, and, therefore, do not replay events just as they happened. Rather, there is subjectivity in how people remember the things and people they saw. In general, the factors that may impact this subjectivity can be split into two groupings - estimator variables or system variables.

What are estimator variables?

Estimator variables impact the ability of witnesses to perceive and recall, according to the American Bar Association. These are factors, which cannot be controlled by the criminal justice system. Some of the most common estimator variables include the following:

  • The length of time that the witness saw the crime's perpetrator
  • The area's lighting when the crime occurred
  • The distance between the witness and the perpetrator
  • The perpetrator's personal characteristics, including his or her hair color, hair style, facial hair, or clothing or hat
  • The witness' level of intoxication
  • The witness' age

Additionally, the witness being of a different race than the crime's perpetrator may impact his or her perception and recall. Highly stressful situations, such as an assault or robbery, may also affect witness reliability. This is particularly true in cases that involve weapons because witnesses often focus on the weapon itself, rather than on the person holding the weapon.

What are system variables?

Those factors, which the criminal justice system can control, are generally known as system variables. Typically, these factors involve the techniques that law enforcement officers use to get information from their witnesses' memories. In their rush to solve crimes and get convictions, authorities may fail to emphasize protocols that could reduce eyewitness errors.

Among the primary system variables that affect eyewitness accuracy are identification procedures, including lineups and photo arrays. For example, the law enforcement agent directing a line up knows who the suspect is. He or she may inadvertently suggest to a witness who to choose. Furthermore, witnesses may feel obligated to select someone if authorities to not make it clear that the suspect may not be in the lineup. Likewise, using different sized pictures or those with different lighting, may cause one person to stand out over the others to a witness.

Establishing a defense

The recollections, identifications and testimony of New York eyewitnesses can be easily tainted. As a result, innocent people may be convicted of criminal offenses. In order to prevent wrongful convictions, those who have been charged with crimes may find it of benefit to seek legal counsel. Working with a legal representative may help them to understand their rights, as well as to defend themselves against the charges they are facing.