Defending the Accused: Challenging Eyewitness Testimonies in Misdemeanor Charges

In the realm of a criminal case, the eyewitness has traditionally held a revered position. Their testimony is often considered one of the most compelling forms of evidence presented during a trial. This perception is due to the belief that a person who claims to have directly observed an incident provides an irrefutable account of events. In misdemeanor cases, where the stakes might not appear as high as more severe criminal charges, such testimonies become even more crucial.

However, the process of eyewitness identification, especially through methods like lineups or photo arrays, is riddled with potential inaccuracies. Criminal defense attorney often finds themselves questioning the reliability of such testimonies, given their potential to lead to wrongful convictions. This becomes especially poignant when the defense lawyer contends with the suggestive methods sometimes employed during the identification process. With the integrity of the judicial system at stake, it’s important to understand the complex nature of human memory and its potential unreliability.

The Role of Eyewitness Testimony in a Trial

In the criminal justice system, the role of eyewitness testimony holds significant weight. Eyewitness testimony in criminal cases is one powerful piece of evidence that juries often find compelling. Especially in misdemeanor cases, where the alleged crime might seem less severe, convictions based on eyewitness accounts can carry heavy weight. This reliance on the validity of eyewitness testimony may be both a strength and a weakness. While an accurate eyewitness account can provide a clear picture of the crime scene and the identity of the suspect, the problem with eyewitness testimony lies in its potential inaccuracies.

The identification of a suspect through lineups and photo arrays, for instance, has both pros and cons. Eyewitness testimony may not be as accurate if the lineup or photo array is conducted in a suggestive manner. Even if the witness believes they can accurately identify the defendant, they may not always get it right. Mistakes in these identification procedures, such as displaying animosity towards one individual or a lack of diversity in the lineup, may affect the eyewitness’ accuracy.

Procedures for Obtaining Eyewitness Testimonies

The role of eyewitness testimony in a criminal trial is paramount. When an individual is accused of a crime, especially if based on eyewitness accounts, the manner in which this testimony is obtained becomes crucial. Accurate identification procedures are essential to ensure justice; conversely, flawed methods might jeopardize an innocent person’s freedom.

Lineups and Showups: Proper Protocols and Potential Pitfalls.

Lineups and photo arrays are standard identification procedures in the criminal justice system. Here, a witness is asked to identify the suspect from a group, ensuring the reliability of eyewitness testimony. However, factors such as lighting, the vision of the witness, and the witness’ emotional state may affect their accuracy. Misidentification is a recurring problem with this testimony, as demonstrated by the Innocence Project, which has overturned numerous convictions due to mistaken eyewitness identifications.

The pros and cons of eyewitness lineups have been debated extensively in criminal law today. When an alleged crime scene’s testimony is based on eyewitness identification from a lineup or photo array, an experienced criminal defense attorney must scrutinize the procedure to ensure no suggestive or leading elements might have influenced the witness.

Interrogation Techniques and the Power of Suggestion.

Interrogation, when conducted improperly, can inadvertently or intentionally plant suggestions in the mind of the witness. Eyewitness testimony in criminal cases can be influenced by the phrasing of questions, animosity, or even a focus on a specific piece of evidence, like a weapon. The power of suggestion can lead to inaccurate eyewitness accounts, making the testimony unreliable. A skilled criminal defense attorney always ensures that their clients facing criminal charges receive a fair chance, especially when challenging eyewitness testimony influenced by suggestive interrogations.

Recording Testimonies: Advantages and Disadvantages.

Recording eyewitness testimonies offer a chance to capture a witness’s initial account of the incident. This method is advantageous as it provides a benchmark against which future statements can be compared, ensuring the consistency and accuracy of eyewitness accounts. However, there are cons of eyewitness testimony recordings too. Witnesses may not realize the full implications of their statements or may not always get it right due to stress at the time or other influencing factors.

If a mistake is made in the recorded statement, it can be challenging to rectify in the later stages of the trial. Nonetheless, if a lawyer can challenge the validity of a recorded statement, especially if the witness’s identification of a suspect or the details of the crime are not accurate or reliable, it can be a powerful piece of evidence to defend the accused.

Challenging Eyewitness Testimony

Each stage presents opportunities for inaccuracies. Stress, common in situations leading to a criminal charge, can impede the accurate encoding of an event.

The method by which eyewitness identification occurs can greatly influence its accuracy. A lineup, for instance, can be unintentionally suggestive. If a criminal defense lawyer points out that their client was the only person wearing handcuffs, this could have subconsciously swayed the eyewitness towards identifying them as the perpetrator, regardless of their actual involvement. Similarly, photo arrays must be handled with care to ensure they don’t lead the witness.

The Problems With Eyewitness Testimony

Eyewitness testimonies are often perceived as credible evidence in court. However, several factors that can affect their accuracy, leading to potential miscarriages of justice.

Environmental Factors:

  1. Poor Lighting or Obstructions: The setting of an incident plays a vital role in how accurately it is remembered. Poor lighting can distort facial features, and obstructions may hide vital details, both of which can lead to inaccurate testimonies.
  2. Distance from the Observed Incident: The further a witness is from the scene of the crime, the less likely they are to provide accurate details. Minute details, especially facial features, become harder to discern with increasing distance.

Psychological Factors:

  1. Stress or Trauma: Highly stressful or traumatic events can interfere with the brain’s ability to encode memories accurately. While they might vividly recall the trauma’s emotion, specific details might become blurred.
  2. Cognitive Biases: Confirmation bias can cause witnesses to recall details that align with their beliefs or expectations, while availability bias might lead them to remember recent or impactful information, even if it’s unrelated.

Socio-cultural Factors:

  1. Cross-racial or Cross-ethnic Identification Challenges: Studies indicate that individuals often find it more challenging to identify faces from races or ethnicities different from their own, increasing the potential for misidentification.
  2. Influence of Media or Societal Beliefs: Prevailing media narratives or deep-rooted societal beliefs can unconsciously influence a witness’s memory. For instance, a high-profile crime on the news can shape or alter a witness’s recall of an unrelated event.

Interactional Factors:

  1. Leading Questions: The manner in which investigators phrase their questions can inadvertently suggest certain answers or details. A question like “Did you see the blue car?” can implant the memory of a “blue car,” even if the witness had not initially recalled it.
  2. Groupthink or Conformity Pressures: If witnesses discuss an event among themselves, there’s a tendency to conform to a dominant narrative, even if it’s incorrect. The desire for social conformity can overshadow an individual’s unique and possibly more accurate perspective.

Making an Argument in Court

The Fallibility of Human Memory:

    • Human memory isn’t always reliable: Witnesses may not realize that their memory can be influenced by numerous factors. Stress at the time, a focus on the weapon rather than the identity of the suspect, and the witness’ emotional state can alter perceptions.
    • Misidentification: This has led to wrongful convictions, some of which were overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence. An attorney can help challenge this by referring to previous cases.

Challenges by the Defense:

    • Testimony reliability: An experienced criminal defense attorney will understand the problems with eyewitness testimony. By focusing on the validity and reliability of eyewitness testimony, the lawyer can challenge accounts that might be influenced by factors like poor lighting, animosity, or even the lineup or photo array procedure.
    • Misidentification and false identification: A skilled criminal defense attorney will highlight instances where there might have been mistakes or biases leading to inaccurate eyewitness identifications.

Identification Procedures:

    • Flaws in lineups and photo arrays: Challenging eyewitness testimony may involve questioning the methods used in witness identification. If a lineup or photo array was suggestive or poorly conducted, the testimony from the eyewitness may be rendered unreliable.
    • Eyewitness testimony excluded: If identification procedures were fundamentally flawed, a defense attorney can move to have the eyewitness testimony excluded from the trial.

External Influences on Eyewitness Testimony:

    • Factors affecting accuracy: The scene of a crime can play a significant role in how events are remembered. For instance, if the crime occurred in poor lighting, the vision of the witness may be compromised.
    • Emotional state: A witness’ emotional state can affect their ability to identify the suspect accurately. Fear, trauma, or even animosity toward the alleged crime or the accused can cloud judgment.

Role of Modern Science and Research:

    • The Innocence Project: This organization has shed light on the cons of eyewitness testimony by revealing numerous cases where eyewitness testimony led to wrongful convictions.
    • DNA evidence: Sometimes, the most compelling eyewitness testimony can be called into question or even overturned by DNA evidence.

Legal Grounds to Challenge:

    • Grounds to challenge: Criminal law today recognizes the potential issues with eyewitness testimony in criminal cases. Lawyers have grounds to challenge testimonies that are based on factors that may not be as accurate or reliable as once believed.

Why an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Is Necessary.

  1. Expertise in Eyewitness Reliability: Eyewitness testimonies, while influential, are not always reliable. An experienced attorney understands the intricacies of human memory and can identify inconsistencies or potential biases in a witness’s account.
  2. Knowledge of Legal Protocols: Proper protocols must be followed during identification procedures, like lineups or photo arrays. A skilled attorney knows these procedures and can identify if any were breached, which might render the testimony inadmissible.
  3. Cross-Examination Skills: Cross-examining an eyewitness requires a nuanced approach. Experienced attorneys can artfully pose questions to highlight discrepancies in testimonies or emphasize factors that might affect a witness’s recollection, such as poor lighting or stress.
  4. Understanding of Scientific Evidence: In cases where eyewitness testimony is the primary evidence, other evidence like DNA might be overlooked. A seasoned attorney can balance the weight of eyewitness accounts against scientific evidence or highlight the lack thereof.
  5. Familiarity with Precedents: Past court decisions can influence the outcome of current cases. An experienced attorney is familiar with precedents where eyewitness testimonies were challenged successfully, which can be instrumental in formulating a defense strategy.
  6. Protecting the Rights of the Accused: Every individual has the right to a fair trial. An attorney ensures that the accused’s rights are not violated and that the testimony’s weight is balanced against the presumption of innocence.


Eyewitness testimonies, while powerful, are not without flaws. Given the myriad factors that can influence human memory and perception, the reliability of such testimonies often comes under scrutiny. In misdemeanor cases, where such testimonies can hold significant sway, the role of a skilled criminal defense attorney becomes paramount. They possess the expertise to challenge potential inaccuracies, ensuring that justice is served.

Balancing the weight of eyewitness accounts with other forms of evidence and understanding the intricacies of human memory is crucial for a fair trial. Thus, it’s essential to approach eyewitness testimonies with both respect and caution in the judicial process.

By Debra Berrier