Eyewitness Testimony: Accuracy & Reliability

Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Eyewitness testimony is the recounting of an event by a witness during a court trial. This information can be the deciding factor involving the death penalty or substantial money in the form of damages. Learn how it is tested for accuracy and reliability. Updated: 02/07/2022


Let's say you were in a car accident where the car in front of you stopped short. A pedestrian, Angela, was on the sidewalk at the time of the accident and saw what happened. You later go to court based upon the negligent actions of the other driver, Bob, who was intoxicated at the time of the accident. When you are in court, you call Angela to the witness stand where she is asked questions about what she saw during the accident. Angela is an eyewitness. When Angela provides her version of the events, she is providing eyewitness testimony.

Eyewitnesses are individuals who see, or witness, an event, activity, person, or other details related to someone's legal case. It is important that an eyewitness's version of what happened is accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. This is because the eyewitness helps to provide proof of what occurred, so the eyewitness can essentially make or break a case.

Eyewitness Testimony

When an eyewitness provides testimony, this is known as eyewitness testimony. This testimony can be either in court or in legal documents like an affidavit. An affidavit is a sworn legal statement which one makes under oath that the statement is truthful. Court testimony is sworn as well, but in person.

When an eyewitness provides testimony, it helps to prove what happened in a set of circumstances. Usually, the testimony in court will be provided by each set of attorneys questioning the witness about the version of events the witness has divulged during the legal proceeding. The eyewitness may be given documents to read, photographs to examine, or even videotaped footage to review. Questioning must be related to the case, or the judge can step in an ensure that there is no far-reaching or unfair questions during the case.

Accuracy and Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony

Think back to when you were last at the supermarket. Do you remember what the cashier looked like? Do you recall any conversations you had with the cashier or anyone else? What color was the cashier's shirt? These are the types of detailed questions an eyewitness may be asked in a similar situation. As you can see, it can be challenging to remember all of the little details, even when you think you know everything that occurred.

When a person is an eyewitness, the person recounts what happened. It is imperative that the eyewitness is providing truthful statements. As a result, there are tests to ensure that the information is accurate and reliable.

One way the eyewitness information is tested is by asking the witness the same questions in different ways; in other words, rephrasing the questions to see that the statements are consistent. Another way in which eyewitness information is tested for reliability is by a review of the background of the witness to see if that person has any propensity or reason to be untruthful. For instance, if an eyewitness to a crime stands to gain money as a result of a certain kind of testimony, then their testimony would not be credible. In addition, eyewitness testimony can be tested for accuracy and reliability by questioning the witness about distance from the scene of the event or any time delays in giving statements about the scene of the event. These two items can help determine if there is any weakness in the reliability and accuracy of the eyewitness testimony.

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