Has there been a case dealing with the accuracy of eye witness testimony?How accurate is it?  In your opinion, what kinds of protections, if any, are needed for a court to accept eye witness...

Has there been a case dealing with the accuracy of eye witness testimony?

How accurate is it?  In your opinion, what kinds of protections, if any, are needed for a court to accept eye witness testimony?

Expert Answers
martinjmurphy eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There have been many cases dealing with the accuracy of eyewitness testimony in court cases.  One well known case was that of Ronald Cotton.  In 1984 he was accused of raping Jennifer Thompson.  Thompson said she made a determined effort to study her attacker to identify him.  She picked Cotton out of a photo lineup and testified against him twice.  This was after seeing another man, Bobby Poole, who had bragged to other inmates that he had committed the crime.  Cotton was convicted. After serving 10 years in prison, DNA testing showed Cotton was innocent and that Bobby Poole was the rapist.

Studies have shown there are 2 variables that effect witness identifications, Estimator variables and System Variables.  Estimator variables include things such as poor lighting or distance from the defendant—variables the court cannot control.  System variables can be controlled by the criminal justice system and include such things as the way law enforcement uses lineups, photo arrays, and other methods of identification.  It is with System variables that reforms could take place.  The Innocence Project (http://www.innocenceproject.org/) recommends several reforms:

1. Blind administration where the person administering the lineup does not know who the suspect is.

2. Lineup composition should include “fillers" who resemble the description of the suspect

3. Instructions should be given whereby the witness is told that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will continue regardless of the outcome of the lineup.

4. Confidence statement should be signed by the witness stating his level of confidence in the identification.

5. Videotaping of the procedure should be done whenever possible.

6. The lineup presentation should be sequential whereby the members of the lineup are presented one by one and not all at once.

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would imagine there have been thousands of cases where the defense attorneys at least attempted to call into question the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.  Not only is it an effective trial technique, but it raises a legitimate legal point.  Human perception and memory are fallible.  People are sometimes wrongly convicted based on eyewitness testimony.

A famous case I can think of off the top of my head was the Sacco and Vanzetti trials of the late 1920s.  It was a murder trial, and the key witness was someone on the third floor of a building who said they saw the defendants driving away from the scene of the crime, even though at that angle, they would not have been able to do so.  They were sentenced to death and executed in part on that testimony (among other things).

Many people are offered plea bargains or immunity in exchange for testimony.  In other words, they are given an incentive for testifying a certain way, which may or may not be the truth.  Many of these same individuals are already convicted criminals, whose testimony, it seems, should carry less weight in a courtroom.

In my opinion, the court must establish, and the defense must be able to challenge, the competency and the reliability of a witness that takes the stand.  The judge can offer instructions to the jury about plea bargains and prosecutorial rewards for testimony, so that it can be weighted in deliberations.