Eyewitness reliability may be an unavoidable issue in NC criminal cases

North Carolina has implemented identification policies designed to reduce eyewitness mistakes, but the nature of memory may still lead to harmful errors.

Eyewitness testimony can be decisive in criminal cases in Charlotte, even though this form of evidence may not always be accurate. According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness errors have contributed to about 75 percent of wrongful convictions that were cleared based on DNA evidence. In North Carolina, 11 of 32 known wrongful convictions have involved the same factor, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Unfortunately, research suggests that unreliability may simply be an inherent aspect of eyewitness testimony. The basic nature of human memory creates a significant risk of eyewitness inaccuracy. This is true even in crimes such as assault or rape, when many people would expect eyewitness recollections to be especially accurate.

Dynamic, malleable memories

In 2014, the National Academy of Sciences published a report on human memory and eyewitness errors. According to The Washington Post, the report explains that memory is not a recording that remains the same every time it is played. Memory is not invulnerable to outside influences, either. A memory can become distorted at any stage, from its initial creation to the moment that it is recalled.

It is also typical for memories to be lost, rebuilt or edited to accommodate new information. Alarmingly, these processes usually occur unbeknownst to the person recalling the event. This means that eyewitness testimony can seem highly credible and compelling, even when it is inaccurate.

Addressing the risk of mistakes

Police identification procedures that lead or bias eyewitnesses can worsen the risk of false memories and misidentifications. Carefully controlled procedures can minimize the risk that a person's memories will be "contaminated." The report from the National Academy of Sciences recommends that authorities implement the following measures to lower the risk of errors:

  • Videotaping lineup identification procedures
  • Administering blind lineups, in which the overseeing officer is not aware of the suspect's identity or lineup position
  • Advising eyewitnesses that the suspect is not necessarily present and that an identification will not halt the ongoing investigation
  • Asking eyewitnesses to describe their confidence in the identification immediately after they make it, before they receive validating feedback

North Carolina already has implemented these procedures under the Eyewitness Identification Reform Act. This represents an important step toward preventing wrongful convictions due to eyewitness errors. Still, even with these best practices, eyewitness testimony may introduce an unavoidable risk of mistakes, given the nature of memory.

Troublingly, even when memories don't become distorted, myriad uncontrollable factors can reduce the accuracy of eyewitness recollections. These include the viewing conditions and the eyewitness's emotional state at the time of the event. This means that in stressful alleged crimes, such as sexual assault or weapons offenses, eyewitnesses may frequently prove unreliable. Considering this, the accuracy of eyewitness testimony should always be carefully evaluated during criminal proceedings.

Defend your rights

Anyone who faces criminal charges supported by eyewitness testimony should consider speaking to a criminal defense attorney. An attorney may be able to offer advice on challenging the charges and the validity of any eyewitness-based evidence.

Keywords: eyewitness, testimony, identification