Experiencing a criminal trial as a defendant is a very harrowing experience. Being a defendant is not a common occurrence for many people, so the newness of the procedure is intimidating. Second, pursuant to this country’s tradition of the burden of proof, the prosecution presents its case first, while the defendant must sit and wait for their turn. The defendant’s criminal defense attorney is typically busily preparing the defense, and, save for a question or two here and there, the defendant is most likely just watching the trial, again adding to the weight of trepidation. One aspect that can make a defendant feel helpless is if the prosecution brings forth a witness who says that, yes, he/she saw the defendant commit the charged crime. Even a more helpless feeling is if the witness is either falsifying his/her identification, has been coerced by law enforcement, or is confused about what actually happened. Recently, the California Innocence Project reported on its effort to reverse convictions based on faulty identifications of witnesses. A discussion of the role of a witness, and strategies to combat improper identifications by witnesses, will follow below.
The Role of Witnesses
In its most essential form, a witness is someone who has information about an alleged crime, and is willing and able to testify about what he/she has seen in court. Thus, the witness is able to act as the eyes and ears of the jury, and if testifying for the prosecution, could report on what he/she saw regarding the defendant’s role in the charged crime. In fact, eyewitness identification has long been at the heart of many criminal investigations and trials. A witness’s identification of the defendant as the person who committed the crime can often be enough, absent any other evidence, to ensure a conviction.
Improper Witness Identifications
While it may appear that a witness identification of the defendant is an extremely reliable weapon for the prosecution, in reality, this is rarely the case. In fact, misidentification is a common problem that persists, despite years of social science and psychological research into the causes of such improper identifications and the associated efforts to implement criminal justice reforms to guard against it. Some of the reasons why the rate of witness misidentification is notable include:
- The witnesses, like the defendant, are also experiencing a high stress environment;
- Due to a lack of being able to remember exactly what happened, human memory tends to reconstruct incidents, and this reconstruction may not be exactly what occurred;
- In many cases, witnesses often focus on surroundings, and not the identity of the perpetrator; and
- Suggestive eyewitness identification procedures used by law enforcement.
A witness’s identification of a defendant is incredibly powerful to a jury. In fact, with the exception of DNA evidence, nothing can be more damning for a defendant than a witness telling the jury that the defendant was at the scene and participated in the crime. However, cases of mistaken identity must be addressed aggressively. Some of the ways to aggressively challenge a witness’s misidentification include:
- Focusing on any physical impairments of the witness, his/her intoxication, the lighting at the scene, any possible visual obstructions, and the amount of time the witness had to view the perpetrator;
- Seeing how much time elapsed between the crime and the testimony;
- The effect of publicity about the trial on the witness; and
- Coercion by law enforcement.
Speak to a Criminal Defense Attorney
If you have either been arrested or convicted of a crime, and you believe that one of the witnesses offered by the prosecution is mistaken in their identification of you, please contact the criminal defense attorneys at Manshoory Law Group, APC as soon as possible. We have years of knowledge and experience in criminal law. Accordingly, we can examine the circumstances, and, if they believe the witness identification is faulty or mistaken, we will devise the most appropriate strategy for you. Attorneys are available 24/7 to take your call. Contact us today for an initial consultation.