Eyewitness testimonies in Maryland federal criminal cases and eyewitness identification can figure prominently in criminal cases and are commonly relied upon by prosecutors to support the government’s case. Depending on the nature of the crime, there are often eye-witnesses who witnessed the alleged crime and might make an identification of the suspect. The witness could be the alleged victim or bystander making an identification of the person alleged to be involved in the crime. Or a witness could be identifying someone in another location who is part of the prosecution’s case. Witnesses can identify people in line-ups or photo-arrays after the fact. Detectives often ask witnesses to review surveillance footage, pictures, and videos can be used to try to identify someone. When somebody claims they saw someone at the scene of a crime, that is compelling evidence. Jurors often view the identification as compelling, reliable evidence. If you have been involved in a federal criminal case and you want to learn more about issues with relying on eyewitness testimony, speak with an experienced federal defense attorney that could help.
Countless studies show that eyewitness identification is far less reliable than is commonly believed. Memories are fluid and may be strongly affected by different factors. Memories might degrade over time. In addition, psychological factors can affect a person’s recollection. A person might be unsure of a memory and something could influence that person to be more convinced and more conclusory in their memory. They may feel pressure or may want to help law enforcement. They are convinced that the person they are looking at is the person who committed the crime even though their memory is foggy. As a result, eyewitness testimonies in Maryland federal criminal cases can sometimes hurt more than they help individuals.
When the government has eyewitness identification, the defense can address that in different ways. If the identification is at the scene and the street as opposed to a line-up or part of an investigation, the defense looks at all the factors. The court will focus on certain factors that affect the reliability of the eye-witness’s statements. These factors could negatively impact the validity of eyewitness testimonies in Maryland federal criminal cases.
Factors that could impact the reliability of an eyewitness’ statements include the amount of time someone had to make their observation of the person in question; what was going on at the time of the observation – was the observation made in a calm, safe, secure situation or was it chaotic? the number of people in the area; and whether a weapon was involved. When someone sees a gun or especially when a gun is pointed at them, their focus goes to the weapon and is not necessarily on the face, features, or the characteristics of the person holding the weapon.
Other factors that could influence a person’s recollection are the time of day, the witness’s characteristics, and whether they were under the influence of a narcotic, alcohol, or drugs. The defense determines whether the witness was tired. If the witness has eyesight problems, the attorney determines whether they were wearing glasses at the time they made their observation.
Based on all these factors, the defense attorney might claim that the witness’s statement of identity is unreliable. It is so unreliable that it should not even be allowed to come into court as evidence. That is a high bar to achieve, but if factors support the claim, the judge may agree. The eyewitness identification might never come into evidence and the jury may never hear about it.
The same factors that impact the reliability of eyewitness testimonies in Maryland federal criminal cases could also be involved if a later identification is made from a line- or a photo array. More often these days it identification is done through a photo array. The authorities show the person six or more pictures that are usually headshots. They ask the person to identify the perpetrator or suspect. The defense attorney looks at the factors from the initial observation to see if the later identification is reliable. Case law and rules determine the process for conducting a photo array.
When the officer knows the suspect, they can intentionally or unintentionally influence the witness to pick out a specific picture. There are rules about how similar the pictures can be. If the suspect is described as having facial hair and there is only one photo of someone with a beard, the other five pictures are of clean-shaven individuals, and the suspect has a beard, that is a problem. If the array is suggestive, then the identification based on the array may be unreliable.
The first step in challenging eyewitness testimonies in Maryland federal criminal cases is looking at all issues related to the identification process. Other factors can be a problem. An expert witness may have a bias. The eyewitness may have a personal relationship with the suspect or has a prior relationship with the suspect that could influence their testimony. There may be other aspects of their testimony unrelated to the identification that casts doubt on the reliability of the person’s testimony. If they cannot remember other details about the incident, those are factors that a defense attorney can use to attack the credibility of that identification.
When an eyewitness identification is allowed in court because the judge believes it is reliable enough to be presented to a jury, the defense attorney can attack the significance of the identification. If the witness says the person on trial is the person who committed the crime, the defense attorney might attack the testimony and say that the judge or jury cannot rely on the identification because the witness is mistaken. They are thinking of a different person. If someone is not a witness to the crime but claims they saw the person at a specific location, or a video does not show the client committing the crime and the government uses the video as a piece of their case, the defense attorney can try to de-emphasize the significance of the evidence. They can try to re-contextualize the piece of evidence to show that it is not related to the crime. It is simply an innocent unrelated piece of evidence that does not support the government’s theory.
The last thing a defense attorney can do goes back to some of the studies and the science on eyewitness identification. Another way to diffuse the impact of the eyewitness identification is by offering expert testimony. Scientific studies and sociological studies demonstrate the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. It is surprising to a lot of people, but eyewitness identification is much less reliable than is generally believed by the public. The defense attorney can offer science-based testimony from an expert in the field or use publications and testimony to demonstrate and explain to a jury that although it may sound convincing, even if the eyewitness is convinced that they are making accurate identification, they might still be mistaken. If the defense attorney can get that information from an expert in front of the jury, that is one more way to address the eyewitness testimony identification. If an individual wants to know more about eyewitness testimonies in Maryland federal criminal cases, they should consult a capable defense attorney that could help them challenge the reliability of eyewitness testimony.