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Potential problems with eyewitness testimony in criminal defense

On Behalf of | Oct 25, 2023 | Criminal Defense

According to the NOBA project, 75% of criminal cases in Maryland and around the country that were exonerated through DNA evidence were originally convicted due to faulty eyewitness testimony. Eyewitnesses are a pivotal part of many criminal prosecutions. However, eyewitness recounts can be misconstrued or even influenced.

Simply forgetting

In many legal defense cases, faulty eyewitness accounts are not intentional. Rather, the eyewitness simply forgets information. Surprisingly, information could be forgotten immediately following the witness of a criminal act. The person who witnessed the crime could be emotionally traumatized by what they saw, and this could prevent them from fully recounting the actual events that occurred. The other common occurrence is the witness simply forgets important details after some time has passed.


In other criminal defense cases, eyewitness testimony can be influenced by the information presented in the interview. In several studies, participants would be asked to witness a video of a crime taking place. Then, they would be asked specific questions about what happened in the video, such as, “Which way did the vehicle turn after it passed you?” However, there would actually be no turn in the video at all. The mere suggestion that there was a turn would prompt the eyewitness to believe there was a barn and answer the question incorrectly.

While it may be difficult for the legal system to prevent all misinformation or mistakes through faulty eyewitness testimony, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the impact in criminal justice defense. Investigators can be better educated about the possibilities of faulty eyewitness testimony and the psychological effects that impact their ability to recall effectively. Additionally, more effort can be made to ensure all aspects of an eyewitness interview are as fair as possible and that no element of suggestion is present. Faulty eyewitness testimony could be the determining factor whether or not someone is sentenced to years in prison and should always be carefully reviewed.