The dangers of eyewitness identification in CA criminal cases

Eyewitness identification has proven to be inaccurate, and in many cases, has resulted in the wrongful incarceration of an innocent person.

Eyewitness testimony is one of the most common methods utilized by the U.S. legal system to identify criminal offenders. Yet, its inherent inaccuracies have led to the incarceration of many innocent people, with some being sent to death row. Since 1986, when the first use of forensic DNA technology was used in court, this innovative and accurate method of criminal identification has been welcomed in the legal system. Not only is it used to link a criminal to a crime, but it serves as a lifeline to prove a person's innocence. Since 1989, 317 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. In 73 percent of these cases, eyewitness misidentification was directly responsible for the wrongful conviction.

The year 2011 proved to be a memorable year for several incarcerated people, including a man in Texas who had spent 30 years in prison for a rape and robbery committed in 1979. Although a single eyewitness was responsible for sending him to prison, he was proven innocent through DNA testing and finally gained his freedom. Another Texas inmate was erroneous sent to prison based on a false eyewitness account, and spent 27 years there before being freed in 2011. There are hundreds of other stories of people regaining their freedom after losing a portion of their lives behind bars, all due to faulty eyewitness testimony.

The human memory

Contrary to many people's beliefs, the human memory is not permanent, according to a study published by Loftus and Ketcham. Not only can people forget vital details of a particular incident, they can rearrange or completely change details to accommodate preconceived notions or beliefs. Other factors, including the passage of time, extreme stress, racial disparities or information learned after an event occurred, can increase the likelihood that the original memory will be affected in some way.

Eyewitness identification

While law enforcement officials cannot control the fragility of the human mind, they can ensure that proper protocol is followed when conducting eyewitness identification. There are several reasons why the identification process is inaccurate, according to the American Bar Association. Law enforcement can limit these inaccuracies by utilizing the following procedures:

  • Conduct a double-blind lineup where the person administering the lineup does not know who the suspect is. This will prevent the administrator from giving inadvertent physical cues or hints as to the identity of the suspect.
  • Let the witness know that the suspect may or may not be present in the lineup.
  • Videotape the lineup procedure to ensure the witness has been give the proper instructions and has not been misled.

The eyewitness lineup should contain people that have similar characteristics, including the same race, height or body build. For example, if the suspect was believed to have a beard, more than one person in the lineup should have a beard.

How an attorney can help

People who feel that they have been falsely identified by an eyewitness or who are fighting a criminal charge may want to seek the assistance of a criminal defense attorney. During this overwhelming time, it may be reassuring to have an established attorney explore your options and guide you through the legal process.

Keywords: eyewitness, identification, inaccurate, false