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The accuracy of eyewitness testimony

When a crime has occurred, often the first order of business is to determine who committed it. Biological evidence, police reports and witness accounts are all used to determine the criminal, but new evidence reported by ScienceMag.org suggests that eyewitness testimony may not be as useful as previously thought. Several convictions, including some slated for execution, are being proven false after advances in DNA evidence techniques and studies have stated that as high as 75 percent of these mistakes were convicted because of witness accounts. There are several reasons why this is the case.

In many cases, a witness is shown several possible criminals and told to select which person committed the crime. The problem is that there are several factors that can influence which criminal is chosen:

  • Order: Lineups may be created with a certain order in mind. Often, the investigators organizing the lineup have an opinion about which criminal committed the crime, so they may order the options in such a way that the witness can be influenced.
  • Sequence: Scientists have been studying whether or not the way the witnesses are presented makes a difference. If all criminals are seen at the same time, it may result in a different choice than if they are viewed one by one.
  • Hints: Even though these investigators may not mean to do it, it can be difficult for them to not drop hints about their suspicions. Small smiles or nods as the witnesses choose certain criminals can be easy to slip in and difficult to ignore.
  • Memory: Unfortunately, the witness's memory may be to blame. NYMag.org reports that stressful situations, weapons and poor lighting can all make it difficult for an eyewitness to accurately remember the face of a criminal.

So far, researchers are unsure about how affecting these factors are, but are working on developing methods to eliminate outside influences. The most unbiased presentation option is currently a double-blind lineup where a computer generates a random order and investigators do not know what the witness is choosing until after they are finished.

Criminal charges are rarely dropped for reasons other than lack of resources, and generally only minor offenses are dropped in that case. Insufficient evidence is one of the few other reasons to drop charges, and this conclusion is sometimes reached after further investigation and DNA advances reveal that the suspect was not guilty after all.

If you or someone you know was falsely convicted of a crime, a criminal defense attorney can help you fight for your rights and work toward justice. Contact an experienced attorney today to begin the process of proving innocence and gaining freedom.

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