Is Eyewitness Identification Testimony Reliable in a Criminal Case?
Legal arguments are available to the skilled legal practitioner. Criminal defense attorneys frequently argue that the identification, whether made in court or out-of-court, should not be admitted in evidence, or heard by the jury. When the defense shows that the methods used by law enforcement were so suggestive that they created a substantial risk of misidentification, the state's attorney must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the identification of the suspect was nevertheless reliable, in spite of the misconduct. If the state cannot show this, the jurors will not be allowed to hear the identification testimony. But beyond any technical rules of preclusion, solid scientific evidence suggests that "eyewitness" identification evidence is just not really that reliable.
The U.S Supreme Court has noted that eyewitness misidentification has led to the conviction of more innocent people than any other single factor, and perhaps led to the conviction of more innocent people than all other causes combined.
This stands in stark contrast to what most people think about the certainty of a person showing up in court and pointing out the defendant. The advent of accepted, economically and practicably feasible DNA testing has both, to some extent, lessened the need for the theatrical pointing-of-the-finger, and highlighted a number of cases where the eyewitness just got it wrong. See also:
-This Article was updated by Eric Kirk on 2/11/19.