Eye Witness Testimony: Not Reliable

There are all kinds of studies that show that eyewitnesses are not very reliable.

Eyewitnesses will swear up and down that they saw a 25 year old white male in shorts and grey t-shirt.  Or that they saw a 35 year old black male, about 5’4, wearing jeans and a hoodie. They will swear that they absolutely saw those people commit a crime.

It turns out, however, that studies show that eyewitnesses often are mistaken, confuse people they see, have trouble processing information when events happen quickly, and are biased.

I was involved in a case about a year ago where the eyewitness – a Raleigh convenience store manager – swore that our client had committed and armed robbery.  He was so convinced that when our client entered to the convenience store three weeks after the robbery to buy a drink, he and his son tackled our client and held him until police came.

Our client – who had nothing to do with the crime and was no where near the scene of the crime when it happened – was asked by police, “Where were you at 2:20 pm 22 days ago?”

Like most people, he couldn’t remember exactly where he was, so he guessed, and he guessed wrong.

He ended up in the Wake County Jail for months awaiting trial. Finally, I located conclusive proof – medical records – that showed that he in fact had gone to the hospital on that day complaining of a fever.  He simply had forgotten where he was, and when he remembered, no one would listen to him.

Even when presented with the evidence that conclusively proved our client had nothing to do with the crime, the store owner insisted our client was one of the four men who robbed him.

The jury of course believed the proof we provided, and our client went free.

But it was a lesson to me about how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be.

People like to think they can remember what happened, and juries like to believe witnesses who seem so sure.  But there’s good reason to doubt an eyewitness’ testimony.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.