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How reliable are eyewitness identifications in criminal cases?

The vast majority of Americans rely on their sense of sight to help them understand the world around us all. However, it is important not to rely too heavily on this particular sense in certain situations. Eyesight is vital, but it is also unreliable at times. Have you ever “sworn” that you have seen something that ended up not being there? Have you ever remembered a scene differently than everyone else who was present at the same time? Have you ever looked at something, looked away and then realized that you remembered characteristics of what you just witnessed incorrectly?

It is precisely because eyewitness accounts are not completely reliable that they should be treated as such during criminal law proceedings. Too often, individuals suffer the stress, indignity and various other consequences of being arrested based on false eyewitness accounts. Unacceptably, many individuals arrested based on false eyewitness accounts are ultimately convicted based on the uninformed eyewitness evidence.

According to a new report released by the National Research Council, courts and law enforcement agencies should be embracing a specific set of best practices designed to decrease the potential that an inaccurate eyewitness account will negatively impact a criminal law case. Thankfully, the National Research Council has been able to construct a set of best practices based on scientific conclusions regarding the limits of human memory and visual perception.

How reliable are eyewitness identifications in criminal cases? Not as reliable as they need to be. Hopefully, law enforcement agencies and courts will embrace the new best practices constructed by the National Research Council in an effort to ensure that those eyewitness accounts which are used as evidence in criminal cases are indeed accurate.

Source: National Academies, “Report Urges Caution in Handling and Relying Upon Eyewitness Identifications in Criminal Cases, Recommends Best Practices for Law Enforcement and Courts,” Oct. 2, 2014

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