Eyewitnesses often are not all that accurate

There are many problems with relying on people’s memories to prove crimes. Child witnesses, for example, may have misunderstood an event.

Before the advent of widespread video surveillance and the use of DNA and other types of technical and scientific evidence in Virginia, many criminal cases hinged almost exclusively on eyewitness recollections of events and identifications of the purported wrongdoer. Nonetheless, even with these technological advances now available in the modern era, many criminal cases, even those to do with homicide, lack DNA or other technical evidence, and prosecutors still rely heavily on eyewitness identifications and other circumstantial evidence. However, as studies have shown again and again, eyewitness testimony is often unreliable and can often be disturbingly inaccurate about important details of the event, including identification of the perpetrator.

Child witnesses present their own set of problems

Additionally, while studies have shown that adult memories can be notoriously inaccurate, similar studies have suggested that child witnesses may be even more so. Children are often faced with situations that they misunderstand, as well as high-level questions involving complex vocabulary. When children try to use their own words to describe an event, adults may dismiss their efforts or misunderstand them altogether. Furthermore, adult investigators can often ask leading questions to impressionable children who may provide an inaccurate answer because it is the answer that they think will please the adult asking the questions. Children tend to do best when they are alert and their stomachs full, however, many authorities question them at naptime, when they want to play or when they have not eaten for a few hours.

"Pristine conditions" are often not followed

Research published in April 2017 talks about the types of pristine and "less than pristine" conditions that can enhance or detrimentally impact the reliability of eyewitness statements and identifications. One example of a commonly used tactic that normally has a detrimental impact on witness statements is when a police officer tells the witness (or when the witness already knows) who the suspect is prior to or during questioning. The published research suggests that such tactics can result in inaccurate statements and identifications and that the more reliable tactic is for the witness to be approached about the identification with no preconceived notions. Coaching, exposing witnesses to conflicting accounts and asking leading questions are other examples of tactics that are commonly used by law enforcement, but which can sometimes result in a catastrophic misidentification.

Possible influencing factors are plentiful

There are so many different factors that can influence eyewitness testimony. Lighting, the duration of a particular event, the race or ethnicity of the "suspect" and of the witness can all play a role. Even eyewitnesses who genuinely believe that they are correctly perceiving an event, given the right circumstances, are capable of seeing a complete stranger and perceiving him or her as someone they know. The passage of time also has a significant impact on witness memory. Because the time between the event and a subsequent court hearing can often be long, a witness who may no longer genuinely remember what a suspect looks like may still identify the accused as the perpetrator merely because that was the person who they identified on a previous occasion. Further, witnesses can sometimes unintentionally add or alter facts of events that took place to make the story more "fluid" in their own mind.

Thankfully, police departments and courts have, over time, become more aware of the many problems with eyewitness testimony. Thanks to DNA evidence and other forms of technology, wrongfully convicted people have been set free after being in prison for years based on faulty eyewitness information. The bad news is that even with all of these potential issues surrounding eyewitness testimony, such testimony often receives more weight and is believed to be far more reliable in court than it probably should. Without a doubt, faulty eyewitness accounts and identifications routinely affect people charged with a wide range of serious crimes, including armed robbery, assault and battery, malicious wounding and homicide.

Eyewitnesses in Virginia still play an important role in many criminal cases and because of this, it can be a good idea for suspects and defendants to get in touch with an attorney who will advocate for them and work to expose these types of eyewitness issues in their case.