Why some witnesses are unreliable in criminal cases

| May 13, 2021 | Criminal Defense |

Witnesses are key contributors to jury or court trials, providing testimony that may lead to the conviction or acquittal of a defendant.

They are often considered reliable but some witnesses do not measure up.

Their reliability is in question due to many factors such as their faulty memories, changing accounts of the incident as well as being influenced by others.

There is no doubt that problems exist with witnesses. Although their statements and testimony are critical in securing a conviction, they already may be tainted from the start due to the persuasion and intimidation of law enforcement investigators as well as prosecutors.

Faulty memories and the power of persuasion

Here are some reasons why witnesses cause consternation in courtrooms and law enforcement interviews:

  • The human memory is not always reliable. Certain critical details such as the alleged perpetrator’s height, weight, hair color and clothing may be overlooked. Witnesses often focus on just a few details, some of which are irrelevant. And, over time, they may forget specific details. Faulty memories lead to confused witnesses.
  • Accurate observation is often questionable in traumatic and stressful situations. These situations make it more difficult for witnesses to remember accounts as well as identify the perpetrator.
  • The presence of bias. A witness may have certain biases toward people whether related to race, gender, age, nationality or even the way people dress. In some cases, their minds already have been made up regarding whether someone is guilty.
  • Tainted through the power of suggestion. Through persuasive tactics, police investigators and prosecutors may steer witnesses in a different direction.
  • Witnesses may not be telling the full story: They may be withholding evidence, perhaps related to their involvement in the crime. Intimidation may play a role here.
  • Expert witnesses may not be experts at all: They may have no academic credentials to support their “findings.”
  • Intoxicated witnesses or those under the influence of drugs can prove problematic: They may provide questionable accounts.

Witnesses are not infallible, and, in some cases, their accounts may lead to a wrongful conviction.