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Best practices urged when dealing with eyewitness accounts

Some of the most serious crimes a person can face in Minnesota stem from an eyewitness account. Prosecutors and law enforcement officers can rely heavily on the statements made by someone who claims to have seen someone else commit a crime. However, it is well-known that these statements can be wrong.

A report recently released by the National Research Council highlights some of the downfalls of using eyewitnesses in criminal cases, and now law enforcement agencies and courts are being urged to develop best practices and more rigorous standards regarding eyewitness statements. 

There are a multitude of issues that are often raised in regards eyewitness accounts. On one hand, visual confirmation by a witness can be difficult to refute. On the other hand, people are quite capable of making mistakes or misinterpreting details, especially in all the commotion of an alleged crime.

Memory is not perfect. Over time, details are lost or changed; people can also be biased or jump to some conclusion based on a sensory expectation when they are seeing something happen; lighting, stress and even the presence of a weapon can also greatly influence how or if a person interprets certain details.

In order to minimize the chances of an inaccurate account leading to a wrongful conviction, the NRC is recommending that greater caution be used by police and the courts when questioning, interpreting and using information from an eyewitness. These recommendations include:

  • Improved training for police
  • Double-blind identification measures
  • Standardized instructions for witnesses
  • Utilization of expert testimony to explain the limitations of human memory during a trial

These and other recommendations are intended to minimize the impact that a faulty or questionable eyewitness account can have on a case. Whether they will be implemented or not remains to be seen.

This report and the statements made by the NRC should remind everyone that mistakes can be made when it comes to criminal accusations and eyewitnesses. If you are facing serious charges, it can be crucial to remember that every person is innocent until proven guilty. Working with a criminal defense attorney can be an effective way to defend yourself, challenge witness statements and pursue the reduction or dismissal of charges.

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