Law enforcement throughout Arizona often relies on the testimony of eyewitnesses as evidence during criminal investigations and criminal trials. Historically, statements from eyewitnesses have been considered one of the most reliable sources of proof. Research shows, however, that the opposite is true. In fact, misidentifications by eyewitnesses are the leading factor in wrongful convictions that are overturned through DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project.
Since the human mind does not work like a video recorder, people generally cannot replay events exactly as they occurred in their minds. There is some subjectivity in how a person perceives and recalls events. This subjectivity can be affected by a number of factors, which can be categorized as system variables or estimator variables.
According to the American Bar Association, system variables are those things that the criminal justice system can control when investigating criminal charges. This includes the methods that authorities use to get the information from the witness’ memory, including physical and photographic lineups. If the law enforcement officer conducting a lineup knows who the suspect is, then he or she may inadvertently signal to the witness who to pick out. Likewise, if the lighting or size of photos in a lineup is different, it might make one picture stand out to a witness over the others. Additionally, witnesses may feel compelled to choose a person from a lineup unless authorities stress that the suspect may not be included.
Estimator variables, on the other hand, are factors that the criminal justice system cannot control. These variables include factors that affect how people perceive events and how they recall them later. Some of the most common factors in this category include the age of the witness, the distance between the witness and the crime’s perpetrator, the amount of time that the witness saw the perpetrator and the lighting in the area where the crime took place.
When authorities rely on easily tainted eyewitness testimony, people may be wrongfully convicted. It may be of benefit for those facing criminal charges to work with an attorney. A lawyer may help them avoid being convicted of crimes they did not commit by establishing criminal defense, which may include questioning the reliability of Arizona eyewitness testimony.