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Eyewitnesses do not make for an open-and-shut case

On Behalf of | Mar 21, 2017 | Criminal Defense

Eyewitnesses do not carry as much credibility as they used to. In fact, factors such as lighting can even lead people to misidentify strangers as people they think they know. Given this, it is realistic to question whether eyewitnesses in many criminal investigations are able to accurately identify potential suspects, especially if the two parties have never met. Here is a look at some of the top problems with eyewitnesses.


People tend to do better at recognizing and identifying people from their own race than they do with those from outside their own race. According to some empirical studies, the disparity with accurate identification is greatest when white people are identifying black people.

Passage of time

How well do you remember the events of a random date such as, say, June 23, 2015? Maybe it was on that day you saw someone breaking into your car; the passage of time in such cases can work against accurate identification in several ways. One way is that memories fade. In fact, they may never have been that sharp in the first place. You see someone breaking into your car and you’re more focused on stopping the act than on memorizing details about the person.

Another way in which time works against accurate identification has to do with suggestions and false memories. Suppose a neighbor asks if the suspect you saw was wearing a green jacket since the suspect for other neighborhood break-ins had been wearing such a jacket. You may honestly not remember-and say so. However, as a few days, as a week pass, you may eventually begin to recall this memory with the suspect wearing a green jacket.


Sometimes, children are the eyewitnesses to alleged acts of stealing, domestic violence or other crimes, and they tend to have more credibility issues than the average adult eyewitness.

  • Communication: Children may not be able to adequately communicate what they saw and may even miscommunicate. Similarly, adults such as police and prosecutors may not understand how to best communicate with children.
  • Routines: A break in bedtime, naptime or mealtime routines can make a big difference for children. Yet, authorities often interview children when they are tired, hungry or restless.
  • Stake in the matter: A child might have more to lose than an adult eyewitness does, particularly if the child may have to potentially move, lose a parent or undergo a huge life change.

Many criminal cases are built largely or partly on the testimony of eyewitnesses. An attorney can help figure out the best ways to approach such witnesses.

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