Eyewitness misidentification is one of the main causes of wrongful convictions in the United States, according to the California Innocence Project. Even so, eyewitness identification is still considered one of the most powerful types of evidence that can be used against a criminal defendant in a court of law. This flies in the face of the fact that there is a high rate of error when it comes to stranger eyewitness identification. According to statistics, as many as one out of every four eyewitness accounts are inaccurate.
But why is there such a high margin of error when it comes to eyewitness identification? Legal experts say that a number of factors and circumstances can make eyewitness testimony less than reliable. Among them:
The human mind tends to reconstruct an incident. We do not have the capacity to record memories. Memories are stored in bits and pieces. We often overlook things like a stranger’s weight, height, age or hair color. It is almost impossible to rewind your memory to recall a fact that you didn’t know you needed to know in the first place. Getting the full picture is nearly impossible and often results in erroneous identifications.
Eyewitnesses are subjected to high levels of anxiety and stress. Imagine being placed in a situation where you fear for your life; how difficult would it be for you to observe details and recall them later? Your thoughts are likely on survival. This is typically the case in assaults, rapes, robberies and murders.
Police and prosecutors often suggested procedures when obtaining eyewitness testimony. It is oftentimes the case that a police officer in doing a suspect lineup will present subtle cues to the witness about which suspect they are looking for him to pick out, such as by gesturing, smiling, hesitating or pausing.
When a crime is occurring, the witness will often focus on the weapon used in the crime instead of the identity of the suspect. In fact, many witnesses have said that they put more focus on the perpetrator’s weapon than the perpetrator himself. It is often the case that a witness can relay the exact color shape and size of a gun or other weapon used but have a sketchier memory of the assailant.
The passage of time between the commission of the crime and the collection of the eyewitness testimony or suspect identification can cloud the memory of the witness.
Nonetheless, the eyewitness testimony and identification of the perpetrator is an incredibly powerful thing for a jury to see. DNA evidence notwithstanding, nothing is more damaging to a defendant’s case than a witness placing him or her at the scene and as a participant in the crime. Even though witness IDs are not always what they seem to be. Poor identification of a defendant by a witness has landed many people in jail unfairly.