Eyewitness testimonies are an excellent form of evidence in the investigation and prosecution of crimes in California. An eyewitness account can outline the events that led to the commission of a particular offense and details regarding how the offense occurred, helping the police and the jury understand a case’s circumstances and identify the culprit. However, such accounts could cause a problem and result in an otherwise law-abiding citizen receiving a conviction they do not deserve. That could happen if an eyewitness wrongly identifies an innocent person as a perpetrator of an offense even when the person didn’t participate in the crime.

This article will help us identify the effects of incorrect eyewitness testimonies on criminal cases, how the law protects innocent people, and what you can do if you are affected.

Eyewitness Testimony Effect on Criminal Cases

Eyewitness testimony is legally used to refer to people’s accounts after witnessing a particular event or crime. It describes the events as they happened through the eyes of a person present at the time, including identifying perpetrators, other people present at the time, and details of the event. Thus, eyewitness testimonies are highly relied upon in criminal investigations and prosecutions. It is believed that no one can give a better account of the events as they happened, like a person who was present during the commission of the offense.

California juries pay very close attention to eyewitness testimonies. They find testimonies like these highly reliable, hence acceptable during investigations and prosecutions of crimes. But the truth is that eyewitness testimonies are not always accurate and must not be relied upon to convict those suspected of breaking the law. They could result in wrongful convictions, a regrettable mistake that could deny a person a significant time of their life.

Cognitive psychologists conducted a lot of research to determine the reliability of eyewitness accounts and whether or not they should be accepted in the justice system to enable judges and juries to make an important conclusion of criminal cases. The findings of some of these researches make it difficult for criminal courts today to accept eyewitness testimonies as concrete evidence against an alleged perpetrator.

Note that eyewitnesses that come forth to provide their testimonies and accounts do so for the interests of justice. However, they could be mistaken, thereby providing wrong information that could cause an otherwise innocent person to face conviction for a crime they did not commit.

The memory of a human being doesn't work like that of a machine. Machines are capable of recording, storing, and even retrieving information accurately. But an eyewitness, just like the rest of us, constructs and interprets the information as they observe it. This construction and interpretation occur way after the actual event. Thus, there is no way to tell for sure that what your memory recorded, constructed, or interpreted is precisely what happened.

Some of the witness’s memories could be created over time, depending on their personal rationalizations of what could have transpired. Suggestions from other people can also distort people’s memories. Thus, eyewitnesses could be mistaken.

Factors that Could Cause Eyewitness Mistakes

Mistakes made by an eyewitness can significantly impact the outcome of a criminal case. Here are common factors that could cause a well-meaning eyewitness to make a mistake, which should not be ignored by crime investigation bodies and juries:

Stress or Anxiety

A person is likely to experience some form of stress or anxiety after a traumatic event, including witnessing the commission of a grave offense. It is a mistaken belief that stress sharpens a person’s senses. People under stress can never give accurate accounts of what transpired in a particular event or correctly identify a culprit. A real-life crime of violence is likely to trigger stress or anxiety in a person, even if they were merely observing it from a distance. It could be worse if the person experienced the crime first-hand.

The Presence of a Dangerous Weapon

Most serious offenses that require strong evidence are committed with or in the presence of a dangerous weapon, like a firearm. Survivors of crimes like these tend to pay more attention to the weapon than the alleged offender. Thus, it is possible to make a mistake when an eyewitness identifies the culprit since their focus was mainly on the weapon. Likely, the witness did not even see the culprit's face or what the culprit was wearing. But their minds will try to process the complete data, including the person holding the weapon. That is how possible it becomes for an eyewitness to point to a wrong suspect.

Their Level of Confidence

Sometimes you come across a super-confident eyewitness who seems sure of what they saw or experienced. Other times you find an eyewitness unsure of the events of the day. In the end, there’s usually not much difference in their accuracy or mistakes. It doesn't mean that the super-confidential eyewitness is accurate and the not-so-confident eyewitness is wrong in their account. The level of confidence doesn’t increase accuracy when it comes to eyewitness testimonies. Even the most confident eyewitness could error.

Different Racial Identification

Ever wondered why people of another race, different from yours, almost always look the same? Unless a person is very close to you, you might not quickly tell the difference between two people of the same race that you just met. That could be another reason why eyewitnesses error when giving testimonies. Identifying a person of another race can be a daunting task. Thus, anyone with the physical semblance of the actual culprit will look like the real culprit to the eyewitness.

Choosing Under Pressure

Investigating a severe crime will put everyone under pressure, including the police, investigators, and an innocent person whose only mistake was to witness the crime. The police may not show it to the eyewitness, but requiring him/her to identify the culprit could make them feel under pressure to choose, even when they know that they don’t have to choose at that instance. Sometimes the police provide pictures of suspects who have one or more similar features. Under pressure, the eyewitness is likely to make the first choice that comes to their mind. The police will take that choice seriously, and could even make an arrest, even if the eyewitness made a mistake.

Influence of Facts

Before giving testimonies, most eyewitnesses recount the events with other observers and interested parties. Over time, they create an account of what they believe they witnessed, which could just be a creation of their mind. Sometimes crucial witnesses unconsciously alter their memories to agree with other observers. The account the police or jury receives is a distorted testimony that could be far from the truth.

Psychological Transference

People unconsciously redirect feelings or emotions about one person to an entirely different person. For instance, an eyewitness could quickly point at a familiar face regardless of whether that person is the actual culprit. If the eyewitness encountered the person in the past, and their memory of the person is not pleasing, they can unconsciously pick them out from a lineup. The person could eventually face criminal charges for an offense they did not commit.

Multiple Culprits

The presence of multiple culprits makes it even harder for an eyewitness to remember precisely how one or two looked like. Remember that events like crimes occur in a splash, with not enough time to see and understand what is happening. Because of a lack of preparedness, it becomes even more challenging for the human mind to process several physical features of different people simultaneously.

Eyewitnesses Interaction Levels With Various People

A person who meets different people every day is likely to make a wrong identification if called upon to identify a perpetrator of a particular crime. That person’s mind is filled with all kinds of images, from the people he/she has met in the past.

How Does the Law Protect You

The presence of all those and many other factors makes eyewitness accounts increasingly harder to believe. But criminal court judges have complete discretion in critical areas like those. A judge may choose to or not to consider an eyewitness account when making his/her final decision. The problem is that even when judges exercise this discretion, they don’t always do so in favor of offenders. Therefore, you may wonder how the law protects innocent people like you if you face serious criminal charges due to a mistaken eyewitness account.

Fortunately for you, eyewitness testimonies are covered by various evidentiary and constitutional provisions in California. For instance, Section 15, Article one of the state constitution and the due process clause protects suspects against identification mistakes made by eyewitnesses. California criminal courts hold that unreliable and unnecessarily suggestive identifications violate due process.

When an eyewitness provides testimony in court, the jury must first consider whether their testimony was excessively suggestive. If it wasn't overly suggestive, it must end at that. But if it is excessively suggestive, the jury will check into the totality of the facts provided before the court. That would help to determine whether or not the testimony was reliable.

Some of the factors that could determine the court’s decision when faced with compelling eyewitness testimony are:

  • The opportunity the eyewitness had to witness the commission of the offense and see the perpetrator

  • The eyewitnesses degree of attentiveness

  • The reliability of the eyewitnesses’ previous description of the events

  • The certainty displayed by the eyewitness during the confrontation

  • The period between the offense and eyewitness confrontation

Additionally, the 6th Amendment of the U.S Constitution gives defendants the right to have a criminal defense attorney present during pretrial lineups. An experienced lawyer will explain what is happening. He/she could also spot any problem that could result in a mistaken eyewitness account and identification. Having the attorney in the room will also stop the officers from taking part in trials and suggestive tactics that could influence eyewitness accounts.

What You Can Do To Help Your Case

If you face serious criminal charges and are afraid that a damaging mistaken eyewitness testimony could influence the jury’s decision regarding your case, it is vital to find ways to help your case. For instance, you could hire a competent criminal lawyer from the beginning of the legal process to guide and protect your rights throughout the process. Mistaken eyewitness testimonies remain a significant problem in criminal cases as they could lead to wrongful convictions. People’s memories cannot be wholly relied upon to give an accurate account of traumatic events. Your lawyer can do an excellent job in ensuring that it doesn't happen to you.

When assured of an eyewitness, the police and prosecutors might not bother to investigate cases as they should. They end up subjecting defendants to excessively suggestive and unreliable procedures, which in most cases result in innocent people facing convictions for crimes they did not commit.

Therefore, if you face a situation of mistaken identity, an experienced lawyer could help with it. Let your lawyer handle the case from the start to prevent unforeseen issues that could cause you to face an injustice during the trial.

Your lawyer’s persuasive arguments could cause the jury to reconsider and have your charges dropped or reduced. If that is not possible, your attorney can at least have the mistaken eyewitness testimony thrown out of the court. It is the only way to ensure a fair trial and ruling.

Find a Competent Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

Eyewitness testimonies might seem reliable as compelling evidence in a criminal case, but they are marred with issues and could result in an unfair conviction of an innocent person. Thus, it is advisable to hire a competent criminal attorney if you have a case involving a mistaken account or identification in Los Angeles, CA. Your attorney will be there from the start to the end, protecting your rights and putting up a fight to compel the court to drop the possibly mistaken eyewitness testimony. At the Law Office of Sara L. Caplan, we are determined to see justice served. Call us at 310-550-5877, and let us study the details of your case to plan a solid defense.