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Eyewitness Identification Is Not Always Reliable

Sometimes the only evidence against the defendant of a crime will be eyewitness identification.   This is when a person actually sees the defendant committing the crime. This would seem to be highly reliable evidence.  However, eye witness identification is actually often inaccurate. 

blurry image of man
Can you identify this man?
Witnesses Can Make a Mistake

There are many reasons why an eyewitness may be mistaken.

The witness may not have gotten a clear view of the person or was not paying close attention.  Sometimes things happen too quickly or the witness is overwhelmed by the emotional impact of the crime.  They might be tired or have been drinking.  Unless you see the person clearly and for a certain period of time, it is actually quite difficult to make a positive identification.

Eyewitness Identification Is Usually Admissible in Court

Even though eyewitness identification can be inaccurate, identification testimony  is admissible at trial in most cases.  An experienced criminal defense attorney will be aware of the possibility that they eyewitness has made an error and will closely examine the reliability of the identification. These are some of the factors that should be considered when weighing the reliability of a witness’s identification:

  1. The length of time the witness actually viewed the defendant
  2. Particular characteristics of the defendant which may stand out
  3. The history and reliability of the possible witness
Influence by Law Enforcement

There is also the possibility that the witness was influenced by law enforcement when making an identification.  If, for example, a witness is looking at the defendant in a photograph or a line up, and a police officer intentionally or unintentionally suggests it’s the person, the witness could be influenced to make an positive identification. An identification like this should not be admissible in court.  Under Louisiana criminal law, if there is any possibility that the identification was influenced by law enforcement officers, then that identification may be considered “tainted”.  Legally, this makes sense.  If a police officer or investigating detective indicates that this might be the guilty party, the witness or victim will be more inclined to identify them.

Experts Can Evaluate Reliability of the Witness

This is not to say that eyewitness identification is always incorrect – of course, many times an identification is correct. However, in a multitude of cases — too many to count – the witness has actually made a mistake for a variety of reasons. These reasons can include: 1) not having a clear view of the person, 2) being overwhelmed by the experience, or 3) being influenced by others.  An experienced criminal defense lawyer must be able to recognize when an identification could be tainted or mistaken.  If the eyewitness identification appears to be unreliable, criminal defense experts can review the facts concerning the identification to see if the identification is actually credible.

You need to make sure you hire an attorney who understands the issues relating to pre-court or in-court identifications and how they pertain to your particular case.  You only get one trial — it should be a fair one.

Thomas Alonzo

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