Massachusetts S.J.C. Addresses Issue of Eyewitness Errors

To reduce wrongful convictions, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that jurors should be advised of known issues with eyewitness testimony.

Potential errors in eyewitness testimony pose significant problems for people facing criminal accusations in Boston and surrounding cities and towns. Here in Massachusetts, 21 out of 44 known wrongful convictions have involved eyewitness mistakes, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. On a national level, the Innocence Project reports that about 70 percent of wrongful convictions at least in part occur as a result of eyewitness errors.

These troubling findings demand caution in the retrieval and use of eyewitness testimony during criminal cases. Fortunately, according to Boston Public Radio, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has recently implemented two measures to reduce the risk of eyewitness errors leading to the conviction of innocent people.

Making eyewitness limitations known

Eyewitness testimony is often presented as reliable in court, despite its known role in wrongful convictions, and many jurors find this testimony highly convincing. To address both issues, the S.J.C. issued a ruling earlier this year that jurors should be informed of the many scientifically established problems with eyewitness evidence. According to The Boston Globe, the Court offered a suggested set of jury instructions that would highlight the following issues:

  • Witnesses who faced stressful situations, such as violent crimes involving weapons, are less likely to remember those incidents accurately.
  • Memories are dynamic and can evolve over time to incorporate new - and potentially incorrect - information.
  • Research shows that an eyewitness's confidence in his or her memories is not a predictor of accuracy. Additionally, information from third parties, such as other witnesses or authorities, can greatly affect a witness's confidence.
  • Eyewitnesses who see the same person in multiple lineups may be more likely to incorrectly identify that person as the perpetrator.

According to Boston Public Radio, the S.J.C. called on a panel of experts to review the proposed instructions. Based on this feedback, the Court will work toward producing standardized instructions that jurors will hear in any case involving eyewitness testimony.

In a second ruling, the S.J.C. held that jurors should be warned of the potential unreliability of eyewitnesses who do not share the same racial background as an alleged suspect. Research shows that eyewitnesses are especially likely to make mistakes in these cases. Surprisingly, this may even happen after fairly intimate incidents, such as alleged sexual offenses. Therefore, according to the court, jury instructions should highlight this issue in addition to the ones described above.

Accused individuals should protect their rights

These policy changes represent important steps toward protecting wrongly accused people from eyewitness errors. Further revisions to the state's criminal justice procedures may be coming soon, as the S.J.C. is scheduled to hear two more cases involving eyewitness reliability. Unfortunately, of course, these legal changes won't necessarily stop errors from occurring in the first place. They also will likely fail to prevent every wrongful conviction.

As a result, anyone who faces criminal charges that involve eyewitness testimony should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney. A criminal defense lawyer may be able to assist a person in challenging the charges and/or the reliability of the supporting evidence.