Arizona has yet to enact recommended measures against eyewitness errors

To many people in Flagstaff, eyewitness testimony may seem like the most convincing type of evidence in criminal cases. It's easy to believe that memories of an unusual or emotionally charged event, such as a violent crime , must be more vivid or accurate than typical recollections. However, numerous studies indicate this is not the case. To the contrary, eyewitness memories of alleged crimes can be dangerously flawed.

Errors not uncommon

Statistics suggest that eyewitness errors are involved in many wrongful convictions. According to the Innocence Project, out of all recorded DNA-based exonerations, 72 percent have involved eyewitness mistakes. It's not unreasonable to think eyewitness errors may also contribute on a similar scale to other wrongful convictions.

The Arizona Republic explains that eyewitness evidence can be flawed because human memories are always subject to outside influences. Memories can also become distorted with the passage of time. When these memories are treated as fact, the results can be disastrous.

One Arizona man spent nine years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of a crime involving child abduction and rape. After the alleged crime, the child recalled that the attacker had a disfigured right eye. Later, the child picked the man who was eventually convicted out of a lineup, even though the man had problems with his left eye. Despite this clear error, the man's innocence was not recognized until more than 15 years after his conviction.

Reasons for misidentifications

Eyewitnesses can make inaccurate identifications for various reasons. A person's memory may be impacted by estimator variables, which occur during the alleged crime, according to the Innocence Project. For example, events viewed from a distance or in dim light are more likely to be observed incorrectly. The stress that eyewitnesses feel when weapons are present, such as during alleged drug and weapons offenses , may affect the way eyewitnesses perceive the scene. Many other uncontrollable factors may also impair an eyewitness's memory.

Memories may also become distorted because of system variables, which arise during criminal justice procedures. According to The Arizona Republic, the National Academy of Sciences recently released a report that detailed the potential problems with eyewitness identifications and called on authorities to work on mitigating known system variables. The report endorsed the following changes:

  • Videotaping every identification procedure
  • Only allowing authorities who are unaware of the suspect's identity to conduct identification procedures
  • Giving eyewitnesses uniform instructions that remove the pressure to pick out someone in the lineup
  • Asking eyewitnesses who make identifications to officially state how confident they feel in those identifications

Together, these measures could help ensure that law enforcement authorities follow correct procedures and that eyewitnesses do not pick up on the biases of people who are more familiar with the alleged crime.

Guarding against errors

While ten states have implemented these measures, Arizona currently has not. Some jurisdictions have started using these best practices, but in other areas, people who have been charged based on eyewitness testimony may be at risk for wrongful convictions.

Anyone who is facing charges of this nature should consider speaking to a criminal defense attorney. An attorney may be able to offer advice on the best way of questioning eyewitness evidence or otherwise addressing the charges.