The problem of law enforcement’s reliance on eyewitnesses

When police are investigating drug crimes in North Carolina, suspects are often identified by eyewitnesses in a lineup, or an eyewitness may be required to testify in court during a trial. Although eyewitnesses can play a huge role in the outcome of a case, it doesn’t always mean they are reliable.

What are the problems with eyewitnesses?

Whether an eyewitness is making an identification for drug crimes or offenses that are more serious, there are often problems. Juries often place a heavy emphasis on eyewitness testimony when forming their decisions on a suspect. However, the following problems are often present with eyewitnesses:

• Eyewitnesses may identify the wrong person as a suspect in a lineup or from a police sketch.
• Eyewitnesses typically testify in court months or even years after the arrest.
• Eyewitnesses may have incorrect memories of what happened on the day of the incident.
• Eyewitnesses may not have seen things clearly based on their vision and the level of distance.
• Eyewitnesses may be led by questions from law enforcement or attorneys.

False convictions for innocent people

The Innocent Project is a group that works to check over past convictions to determine whether a person is actually innocent. Out of the first 130 cases overturned by the group, 78% of the wrongful convictions were made largely due to eyewitness testimony. DNA evidence is used to overturn wrongful convictions. DNA is also far more reliable than eyewitness testimony because it cannot lie or make a mistake.

Certain tests have shown that eyewitnesses are not that reliable in drug cases and more serious offenses. This is especially true if the eyewitness is over the age of 60. According to one study, those between 60 and 80 years old fared worse in tests than younger individuals but insisted they were right.

There is also the issue of potential bias in eyewitness accounts and testimony. This poses a huge problem when juries put so much dependence on eyewitnesses, which can be devastating for a person’s future unless they prepare a strong defense.