Are Eyewitness Accounts Reliable?

Relying on eyewitness accounts to help prove your case in court is never a good idea. Everyone remembers events a little bit differently, and the further you are removed from the event in time, the more unclear your memory of the event gets. Memories can fade or become blurred together with other memories that have similar details.

Even if you have intelligent, trustworthy people who closely witnessed the whole incident going to court to share their account of events in support of your own, a competent attorney can almost always find details in witness accounts that vary. If the jury hears contradictory testimony regarding some small details, they will most likely begin to question the accuracy of other points as well.

If you are involved in an accident, taking relevant photos and notes is a better strategy than counting on your memory or the memory of others. When in an accident (unless you are injured and unable to do so), always gather as much information from the scene and take as many pictures as possible.

Talk to witnesses and get phone numbers. Even if you don’t end up using their testimony in court, they may have information that can help you, and it is possible that someone got the accident on video or took a picture from before or during the crash that could help.

So, Is Eyewitness Testimony Even Worth the Time?

While eyewitness testimony is not reliable as your sole means of proof, it can still be helpful as supporting evidence. Even if there is a small detail in an eyewitness testimony that doesn’t match with the testimony of another, the witness account can be helpful as long as there is a lot of physical evidence that backs up the main points that are given.

Every bit of evidence that you can bring to a case that supports your version of events can help your cause. As long as the witness is determined to be reliable (witnesses with drug, alcohol, money, and other problems are generally not viewed as credible and not worth putting on the stand in most cases), then by all means, have them testify.

Eyewitness Accounts Are Better Closer to the Event

While eyewitness accounts are not reliable when used as your primary evidence in court, they can be more useful at previous points in a case. By the time any case gets to court, eyewitness accounts have been contaminated in one way or another. However, shortly after the event in question, eyewitness accounts are far more reliable.

For instance, eyewitnesses can be very useful in police lineups. Shortly after the event, eyewitness memory is much fresher. If asked to pick a suspect out of a police lineup immediately after a crime, as long as the eyewitness got a good look at the culprit and was not high or drunk at the time, chances are quite good that they will be able to pick out the guilty party.

It is important when using an eyewitness to make a positive ID that multiple things are taken into account. If a witness is making an ID from a police lineup, there are three main factors to take into consideration to achieve an identification that will hold up in court.


The first step to making sure a witness ID from a police lineup is accurate is to make sure the lineup takes place as soon as possible after the event. The more time that passes and the more faces that the witness is exposed to over this time, the less reliable their memory will be.


When picking the participants in the lineup, the suspect should not stand out. Obviously, if the suspect is 6’5″ tall and 240lbs and the other five participants in the lineup are around 5’8″ and 140lbs, the witness picking out the suspect is not going to be very reliable.


The confidence that the witness feels about the correctness of their identification is key. Studies have shown that IDs made with high confidence have an accuracy rate of around 97%. A pick made with low confidence is not very helpful. It means that the witness most likely did not get a good enough look at the suspect or that their memory has already become contaminated.

The witness’s identification of the suspect should be recorded so that the confidence they exude about their pick can be used as further support of the accuracy of the ID.