Eye Witness Accounts

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When investigating instances with possible eyewitnesses, law enforcement authorities must undertake numerous things before having the witness pick out the suspect in lineups or a photo lineup. They must evaluate numerous factors in order to avoid the possibility of an innocent person being wrongfully convicted. The chances of someone being falsely convicted because they were chosen in a photo lineup should be as minimal as possible, and if the witness is not completely certain that he or she sees the exact person who committed the crime, the suspect should not be detained as a result of such testimony.  A lineup requires officers to gather eyewitness accounts and combine them to come up with a single description. At this time, they have to gather a lineup of people with similar descriptions as the one given to the suspect (Manapat, 2014). This could take some time depending on how difficult of a description given. Officers have to make sure that the individuals selected for a lineup do not stand apart from one another in appearance, outlook, or facial expressions. The lineup can not contain a person who is extremely happy if the rest of the lineup seems upset or depressed. This will draw more attention to that one person. These lineups can either make or break a case (Manapat, 2014).

Photo lineups are normally reserved for more severe cases such as assaults, sexual assaults, or homicides (Manapat, 2014). They do not have to be done in the presence of the suspect’s attorney or even in the presence of law enforcement officers. This type of identification can be done through the mail and the witness just returns the lineup to the police with the suspect’s picture circled after they have signed and dated it. This could be faulty due to the witness feeling obligated to picking someone in the lineup or having someone else assist them in picking someone.

Suspect lineups are the most accurate way for a witness to positively identify the suspect, but the lineups should be conducted when the incident is still fresh in the witnesses’ mind to avoid others influencing the witnesses’ memory (Manapat, 2014). Each lineup should be done in a precise way in order to prevent compromising the case because if the identification process is said to be tainted, then the suspect will be less likely to be prosecuted for the case which they are being investigated for.

In the first 183 cases that were exonerated in the United States, at least 75% of the cases were caused by misidentification by an eyewitness which led to wrongful convictions (Schuster, 2007). Due to this many people being exonerated, many officials started questioning how lineups were performed. Some feel that simultaneous lineups are invalid due to the eyewitness comparing all of the suspects at one time rather than individually (Schuster, 2007). They also feel like the witness will likely choose someone out of a lineup that closely resembles the suspect if the real suspect is not present in the first lineup.

Sequential lineups are more likely to lead to the witnesses picking the correct suspect, as they feel like they are allowed more time to look at the photos of each suspect and are able to evaluate each photo thoroughly (Schuster, 2007). This gives the witness more time to recall what the suspect looked like when the incident took place. This is more accurate due to the witness not feeling pressured to make a decision right away.

There have also been witnesses that purposely pick the wrong person in order to either get back at someone or to try to take the law into their own hands later. If someone in the lineup has done something to the witness in the past, they might pick them in order to have the police arrest them and charge them with a crime they did not commit. This is one of the aspects that can go wrong if there is no other evidence other than what the eyewitness testimony. This is when the option of making an ethical decision is left up to the witness.

There are also incidents where the officers are pressuring the witness to pick out a suspect, especially if the witness is not sure that he or she sees the person who committed the crime. They might make the witness feel like they have to make a decision and choose one of the people who are present ion the current lineup. The officers might motivate such an action by telling the witness that if they do not choose, someone else will get hurt. They might also say that all possible suspects are in this lineup. That might make the person rethink what the suspect looked like and possibly lead to him or her picking the wrong person. This is very unethical on the part of the officers who are conducting the lineup.

Some cases might cause pressure on the witness due to the fact that the public is expecting results. The general public might want someone to pay for the crime and because of this the wrong person could be picked from the lineup. The public might question the witness and even possibly make them rethink what they thought they saw when the incident occurred. For example, they might say, “Are you sure he had brown hair and not black hair?” or “Are you sure it was not a black male?” These questions can confuse the witness and even remake the image of the suspect in their mind. They might see something completely different by the time they go in for the lineup at the police station. This might cause them to pick the wrong person.

There is a vast variety of types of lineups that can be performed in order to catch a criminal in a case, but there are also several different things that need to take place in order to make sure that the chances of catching the wrong person are lowered. However, if a lineup is not conducted pretty early during the investigation, the chances of the lineup working properly could decrease as time goes by. Lineups are pretty accurate for the most part, but there have and will be instances where they end up leading to a wrongful conviction.

The issues regarding eyewitness testimony and identification can be examined further externally, as they can often reflect flaws within the criminal justice system. With regards to eyewitness identification, many speculate about the influence that the officer administering the lineup can have on the outcome of the identification. Often, the officer knows who the suspect is, leading to certain biases or “suggestive post-identification remarks… that might artificially enhance the eyewitness’s confidence” (Loftus, 1980). In the case of Troy Davis, Prof. Brandon Garrett, a law professor from the Virginia Law School, stated that the police created the case and conviction through having the “eyewitness evidence at the core of [Davis’s] original criminal trial.” In 1991, the 23-year-old US-citizen Troy Davis was convicted and sentenced for the murder of a 27-year-old off-duty police officer Mark McPhail in Savannah, Georgia. Seven hours after his conviction, he was sentenced to the death penalty, but up until his execution in 2011, Davis maintained his plea of innocence. The main basis of Davis’s conviction derived from nine eye-witness testimonies that assumed him to be guilty, seven of which have since recanted their testimonies. Eyewitness testimony is defined as the recount of witnesses who were at the scene or who have firsthand accounts of the criminal activity. While the tool of identification through eyewitness testimony has been widely dubbed unreliable, it is still being used widely across the United States of America.

Elizabeth Loftus from the University of Washington confidently states that “the unreliability of eyewitness identification evidence poses one of the most serious problems in the administration of criminal justice” (1980). Eyewitness testimony is a courtroom issue that has been studied extensively, “including 2,000 published studied on the fallibility of human memory and perception” (Loftus, 1980) and, while there are many supporting factors to consider, there are also many limitations to deliberate. There is a certain assumption that jurors and judges believe that witnesses are more credible than they actually are or could be (Loftus, 1980). With relation to jurors, many civilians enter their jury duty assuming that the witnesses who are put on trial are absolutely sure about what they saw. This causes jurors to disregard any further factors that they should be considering such as memorial variances that could cause them to view the case and testimony in a more holistic manner.

Within the psychological realm, there are multiple factors that can affect an objective eyewitness testimony. In her article “Impact of Expert Psychological Testimony on the Unreliability of Eyewitness Identification,” Loftus concludes that there are “various environmental and internal factors [that] operate to affect the perception and memory of witnesses” (Loftus, 1980). Furthermore, in the article, she examines the influence that an expert testimony might have on the jury and their decision. Expert testimony is the statement that a qualified professional would make pertaining to an issue relating to a case. Through a controlled experiment, Loftus concluded that the jurors who received an expert testimony regarding eyewitness testimony took longer and considered more factors in their final decision. Sara Conway considers this further, as she determined that, concerning eyewitness testimony, lack of knowledge about the process can be a large determinant. Furthermore, she stated that further education about the limitations of eyewitness testimony is crucial because “the jury, not the judge, traditionally [determine] the reliability of evidence.” In short, even if the courts and professionals know the implications and limitations of eyewitness testimony, ultimately, they will not have much of an impact on the consequential outcomes, as the jury would have the final say.


Schuster, B. (2007). Police lineups: Making eyewitness identification more reliable. National Institute of Justice, 258, 1-44.

Loftus, Elizabeth F. (1980). Impact of expert psychological testimony on the unreliability of

eyewitness identification. Journal of Applied Psychology, 65(1), 9-15.

Manapat, R. (2014). Lineup and photo array suspect identification. Available at: http://www.rcminvestigation.com/news-articles/Articles/lineupandphotoarraysuspectidentification

April 19, 2023

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