Eyewitness Identification: How reliable is it?

     The most important issue in any criminal case is identifying the person who committed the crime. Prosecutors must prove not only that a crime was committed, but also that the defendant is the one who committed it.  The identity of the criminal, like all other elements in the government’s case, must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. 

     The one question I ask juries in every case is, “Do you find the identification evidence reliable?”  A person’s ability to make an identification can depend on numerous factors.  How long did the witness view the person?  What were the lighting conditions?  Was the person’s face covered by a mask or hood? Was there a delay between the crime and the identification?

     When there is a delay between the crime and the identification, it is important to know what description the witness gives to police. How tall was he? What did he weigh?  What was he wearing? This is the information the police use to try to find the criminal. Does the witness’ description match the person that was arrested?

     When police are involved in identification procedures, they have great influence over who gets picked and who doesn’t. Post-incident identifications by witnesses are often suggestive by nature.  Witnesses are shown suspects who are handcuffed and in police custody, followed by a leading question, “Is this the guy who robbed you?”

       The law in Pennsylvania recognizes that a witness to a crime can sometimes make a mistake when identifying the criminal. If certain factors are present, the judge will instruct the jury to “consider with caution” a witness’ testimony identifying the person who committed the crime. These factors include a poor opportunity to observe the criminal; if the witness testifies that he is not positive as to identity or hedges or qualifies his identification; and/or if the witness identifies someone other than the defendant in another identification procedure like a line-up or photo-spread.   

     The attorneys at Scarpello & LaTour are experienced courtroom litigators and former Philadelphia prosecutors.  If you have been charged with a crime that you didn’t commit contact our attorneys for a free consultation about your case.  You only get one chance to defend yourself in a criminal case.  Choose Philly’s best defense. Let our attorneys fight for you.