The unreliability of eyewitnesses in Baltimore criminal cases

Numerous factors can affect eyewitness reliability, which may result in people being wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Law enforcement agencies in Baltimore, and elsewhere, commonly gather eyewitness statements as evidence in criminal investigations. This type of testimony has long been considered as one of the most reliable sources of proof. However, research shows the opposite to be true.

In fact, it is common for eyewitnesses to misremember events or misidentify people. This has led to many false convictions for crimes involving murder, robbery and sexual assault. According to a USA Today report, eyewitness misidentification has played a part in three-quarters of the convictions that were later overturned through DNA testing.

Why is eyewitness testimony unreliable?

In general, the human mind does not work like a video recorder. Therefore, it cannot rewind and replay events exactly as they occurred. Instead, there is some subjectivity in the way that people recall things they saw and events they witnessed. As such, there are a number of factors, which may contribute to the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. These factors can generally be separated into two categories – system variables and estimator variables.

System variables

According to the Innocence Project, system variables are factors that can be controlled by the criminal justice system. They typically include the methods that authorities employ to obtain information from witness memory. In their haste to solve a crime and obtain a conviction, authorities may not emphasize steps that can minimize eyewitness errors.

Photo arrays, lineups and other identification procedures are among the main system variables affecting eyewitness reliability. For example, using different sized photos, or photos with different lighting, may make a suspect stand out to a witness from the other people pictured. Furthermore, if the law enforcement agent conducting the line up knows who the suspect is, they may make unintentional suggestions that the witness could pick up on. Additionally, it is common for witnesses to feel inclined to pick someone out of a lineup, unless authorities emphasize that the suspect may not be included.

Estimator variables

Estimator variables are those factors that are outside of the criminal justice system’s control, according to the American Bar Association. These variables may impact the ability of eyewitnesses to perceive events, and to recall them. Some of the factors that may be included in this category include the following:

  • The lighting in the area when the crime occurred
  • The level of a witness’ intoxication
  • How far away a witness was from the crime’s perpetrator
  • Whether the race of the perpetrator differs from that of the witness
  • The age of the witness
  • The amount of time that a witness had to view the perpetrator

Other factors, including the perpetrator’s personal characteristics, can also impact witness identification. Changing things, such as people’s hats, hairstyle or color, or facial hair, may alter how witnesses perceive them. Witness identification and recall can also be impacted by high stress situations. This is particularly seen in events that involve a weapon since a witness would put most of their focus on that weapon instead of on the person holding it.

Obtain legal representation

When authorities in Baltimore do not follow proper protocols, it can easily result in eyewitnesses becoming tainted. This may lead to the conviction of innocent people . In order to avoid being wrongfully convicted, it may be important for people who have been charged with criminal offenses to work with legal professionals. An attorney may help to establish a thorough criminal defense, which may include questioning the reliability of eyewitnesses.

Keywords: eyewitness, wrongful, conviction