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The problem with eyewitness testimony in New Jersey


Many factors can influence the memory of a witness and these factors can result in the conviction of an innocent person.

Last year, a man in New Jersey was found innocent of the sexual crime he had been convicted of 11 years before after DNA testing excluded him as the attacker. The University of Michigan Law School states that the victim had identified the man from a photographic lineup, even though the initial description she gave to police did not match, and had testified he was the perpetrator at trial.

Frontline reports that eyewitness testimony is considered one of the strongest forms of evidence by juries. However, science shows that human memory is fallible and therefore, far from reliable. People exhibit this all the time in the retelling of stories, adding in details that never happened or influencing the account with their own opinion or beliefs. The idea of the "tall tale" is a result of the inability of the brain to recall every detail, every color and every event with 100 percent accuracy.

System variables

While some of the problem with eyewitness testimony can be attributed to simple human error, the American Bar Association says it can also be influenced by what system variables. These are influences directly under the control of investigative agencies and include the following:

  • Improperly conducted photo lineups - in many cases, law enforcement inadvertently influence a witness when the suspect's photos differs in size, coloring and shape from the other photos used. Additionally, in one third of all photo lineups, the witness chooses an innocent person as the perpetrator.
  • Using too many suspects in a lineup - Witnesses can become confused if there are more than six faces that they have to look up, raising the risk that they will make a mistake.
  • Providing post-lineup feedback - officers can accidently bolster witnesses' confidence that they picked the right person by telling them they did well. Officers should also make it clear that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup.
  • Conducting a lineup that is not blind or double-blind - if officers involved with the investigation are conducting the lineup, they can subconsciously provide suggestions to the witness.

It should also be noted that law enforcement agencies often do not have any written policies on how to obtain eyewitness identification. According to USA Today, a recent report revealed that 64 percent of agencies did not have any standards for photo lineups and 84 percent had none when it came to live lineups.

Estimator variables

Environmental conditions have also been shown in research to greatly influence a witness' memory. For instance, if the attacker had a weapon, the victim will focus more on the weapon then on the person's face. Other variables include lighting, the existence of bias against a specific race, the age of the victim, alcohol consumption, distance from the alleged attacker and even facial hair.

People who are arrested and charged with committing a crime in River Edge have a legal right to question all evidence collected against them, including witnesses. Speaking with a criminal defense lawyer can help them understand the investigative process and question shaky evidence.

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