Eyewitness Testimony in Trials: Not What It Seems

In trials and before, often the prosecution relies on eyewitness testimony. By that we mean an untrained civilian who claims to have seen an event take place or who claims to be able to identify the perpetrator. The plain truth is that this type of testimony is the least reliable.

There are several situations when a private citizen might be called upon to make an identification. The most frequent is in a line up or “show up.” We have all seen the situation on television where a citizen is brought into a police station and a group of five or so people are behind two way glass and the citizen is asked to identify the offender by number. This rarely happens, in practice. More frequently, the citizen is shown a group of photographs and asked to identify the offender. In addition to the inaccuracy of identifications, this method can also be flawed when law enforcement shows the citizen a photo array of people who do not look vaguely similar.

In addition to line ups and photographic arrays, often the identification is as simple as asking a citizen to identify a person already in custody. We see this all too often and such identifications are inherently suggestive.

After the initial identification, the citizen is usually called to testify at trial and identify the offender, which often leads to erroneous identification. Psychological Science conducted a study called “Recalling a Witnessed Event Increases Eyewitness Suggestibility: The Reversed Testing Effect”. In that study, it was determined that a citizen’s memory of an event is changed by what type of information he knows about that event. That is, both before and after the crime is committed, a person’s perception can be altered. For instance, what a person sees at the time of the offense can be completely changed once they read about the case in the newspaper or see reports on television.

Unfortunately, in jury trials, jurors often place the most weight on eyewitness testimony in determining guilt or innocence. For these reasons, it is of vital importance that, when hiring a criminal defense attorney in Houston, that you select one who is aware of the problems with eyewitness testimony and knows the strategies to combat it. That is, Mr. Pham understands that jurors need to be educated about the reliability of eyewitness testimony. This can be done in several ways. First, and most obviously, Mr. Pham has used expert testimony to illustrate the unreliability of expert testimony. But also, this unreliability can be developed during cross examination. That is, Mr. Pham asks the citizen identifier to discuss other surrounding circumstances, and often they cannot. Furthermore, police officers are usually aware of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony and can serve as virtual experts for the defense.

Hiring an experienced criminal attorney like Mr. Pham can often make the difference between incarceration, probation and freedom. If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges and want an experienced and aggressive criminal defense lawyer, contact Houston attorney Michael H. Pham at (713) 236-7791.

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