Eyewitness misidentification is a contributing factor to a significant number of wrongful convictions in the U.S.
Thousands of people spend their days behind bars as part of the U.S. prison system. While some California prisoners are serving time for crimes they committed, others have never committed a crime at all. Since 1989, 329 people have been exonerated of their crimes after DNA evidence proved their innocence, according to the Innocence Project. Another 8 people were proven innocent through use of evidence other than DNA testing that provided a reasonable doubt of guilt. Hundreds of cases are currently under investigation. These surprising statistics leave many people wondering how innocent people could be unjustly incriminated in the first place.
Although there are several common factors that lead to wrongful convictions, eyewitness misidentification is the most common. In fact, eyewitness misidentification was involved in 72 percent of cases that were later overturned due to DNA evidence.
Many studies have proven that eyewitness identification and testimony are inherently unreliable. Improper lineup procedures, limitations of the human memory and environmental factors all play a role in the identification and testimonial process. The administrator of a lineup may unintentionally lead the witness to choose a specific person by making comments before, during or after the process. The way the lineup is organized can also contribute to a misidentification. For example, if a perpetrator was said to have had a beard, and there is only one person in the lineup with a beard, the witness is more likely to choose that person.
Studies conducted on the human memory and the way people process information also support the idea that eyewitness identification may not always be accurate. People are less likely to remember specific details about a crime as time passes.
The Innocence Project also reported that people often have trouble identifying key characteristics of a suspect if he or she is a different race than their own. This occurred in at least 40 percent of the cases affected by eyewitness misidentification. Environmental factors, including how much light was present at the crime scene, and how far away the suspect was from the witness, contribute to the accuracy of identification as well.
Steps in preventing eyewitness misidentification
Many states have adopted strict protocol when it comes to carrying out physical and photo lineups. Blind lineups should be conducted, led by an administrator who is unaware of the suspect's identity, according to the American Bar Association. Lineup administrators should inform witnesses that the suspect may or may not be present in the lineup. Lineup procedures should be properly organized and recorded in order to protect those who have been falsely accused of a crime.
People who face criminal charges deserve to be given a fair trial. A criminal defense attorney in California may help to ensure your rights are upheld in court. An attorney may help you explore all of your legal options, formulate an aggressive defense and represent your case in a court of law.