Why We Should Expect Witnesses to Disagree

By J. Warner Wallace,  author of Cold Case Christianity

I’ve worked more cases involving witnesses than I can even count. A career in law enforcement will put you in direct contact with eyewitnesses on a daily basis, starting with your very first night on the job. After interviewing literally thousands of witnesses over the course of twenty five years, I think I’ve learned something about reliable eyewitness testimony. I want to share three simple characteristics of reliable eyewitness testimony and relate these three characteristics to the Gospels:

Reliable Eyewitnesses Never Agree In all the cases I’ve ever worked, from simple theft and assault cases, to robberies and homicides, I’ve yet to have a case where the witnesses of the event agreed on every single detail. It’s never happened. I’ve learned that perspective is important, and it’s not just one’s physical perspective that determines what a witness did or didn’t see. When you’re staring down the barrel of a robber’s pistol, you have a tendency to miss certain details that are picked up by the witness who is watching from across the isle of the liquor store. There are many factors that contribute to one’s perception of an event. Physical location, past experience, familiarity with a feature of the crime scene; a witness’ physical, emotional and psychological distinctives play a role in what they see and how they communicate this testimony after the fact. No two people are alike, so no two people experience an event in precisely the same way. If you’ve got three witnesses in a murder case, expect three slightly different versions of the event. Don’t panic, that’s normal. In fact, when three different witnesses tell me the exact same thing, I start to get suspicious.

Reliable Eyewitnesses Raise Questions As a young, inexperienced investigator, I used to think that an eyewitness would answer all my questions about an event. I wish this were true, but the reality is that for every question an eyewitness answers about what occurred at a crime scene, a new question is often raised. There are times when eyewitnesses even raise more questions than they have answered. I’ve worked a number of cold-case homicides in which an eyewitness account was captured decades ago, at the time of the original investigation. After reading the testimony, I was left with a few troubling questions. How could the crime have occurred like the witness described it? How could the suspect have done what the witness said? There are times when an eyewitness just doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. But after paging through the case file to the next eyewitness statement, the questions raised by the first eyewitness are sometimes answered by the second observer of the event. I call this “unintentional eyewitness support”; times when an eyewitness raises questions that are then unintentionally answered by a second observer. I’ve seen this so many times over the past twenty-five years, that I’ve come to recognize it as a feature of reliable eyewitness testimony.

Reliable Eyewitnesses Are Sometimes Incorrect There are times when an eyewitness gets something wrong. In fact, I’ve seen this repeatedly over the course of my career. Witnesses are people and people make mistakes. But the fact that a witness might be wrong about a particular detail or element of the crime does not necessarily disqualify them or render their testimony unreliable. If that were the case, we would never be able to prosecute anyone for anything. When examining the reliability of an eyewitness and encountering some factual error, I’ve got to determine (1) if the errant aspect of the statement is relevant to the larger issues in the case, and (2) the reason why the witness got the detail wrong in the first place. If a victim of a robbery misidentifies the kind of shirt the suspect wore at the time of the robbery, I have to ask myself this misidentification makes the victim an unreliable witness. Is there a reason why the stress of the situation may have caused the victim to focus on issues other than the kind of shirt the robber wore? Is the truth about the shirt captured in some other way (like in the surveillance video) that can help us determine the truth of the matter? Does the misidentification of the shirt make a difference to the larger nature of the case? Is the victim accurate on the other more pertinent details of the crime? A witness can be incorrect about a particular detail, yet still be reliable as an eyewitness.

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One thought on “Why We Should Expect Witnesses to Disagree

  1. Andrew Sanford December 17, 2012 / 4:06 pm

    Eric this is a great article. Short, simple, but really informative. I’ll buy that guys book if i ever get around to it…

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