Reevaluating Lineups: Why Witnesses Make Mistakes and How to Reduce the Chance of a Misidentification

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 16, 2009 @ 12:24 PM — Comments (1)

That is the title of a report released today by The Innocence Project on eyewitness misidentification. The report outlines the causes of eyewitness misidentification as it relates to flawed identification procedures and how improved methods can reduce future occurrences.

Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence. The research from the report shows:

• 240 people, serving an average of 12 years in prison, have been exonerated through DNA testing in the United States, and 75% of those wrongful convictions (179 individual cases as of this report) involved eyewitness misidentification.

• In 38% of the misidentification cases, multiple eyewitnesses misidentified the same innocent person.

• Over 250 witnesses misidentified innocent suspects.

• 53% percent of the misidentification cases (among those where race is known) involved cross-racial misidentifications.

• In 50% of the misidentifications cases, eyewitness testimony was the central evidence used against the defendant (without other corroborating evidence like confessions, forensic science or informant testimony).

• In 36% of the misidentification cases, the real perpetrator was identified through DNA evidence.

• In at least 48% of the misidentification cases where a real perpetrator was later identified though DNA testing, that perpetrator went on to commit (and was convicted of) additional violent crimes (rape, murder, attempted murder, etc.) after an innocent person was serving time in prison for his previous crime.

Often, these misidentifications are the product of the stressful task of identifying the criminal. Misleading lineups where police infer that their suspect is present influence the eyewitness’ decision. Once a someone is chosen by an eyewitness, investigations discontinue the search for other suspects.

A testimony directly identifying a defendant is compelling evidence when coming from a seemingly confident witness, whom jurors don’t always realize has the capability of being mistaken. One testimony can be enough for a conviction.

Decades of empirical, peer-reviewed social science research reaffirms what DNA exonerations have proven to be true: human memory is fallible. Memory is not fixed, it can be influenced and altered. After the crime and throughout the criminal investigation, the witness attempts to piece together what happened. His memory is evidence and must be handled as carefully as the crime scene itself to avoid forever altering it.

Reformation of law enforcement identification procedures have been proven to significantly reduce the instance of eyewitness misidentification.

The reforms include: double-blind presentation (photos or lineup members are presented by an administrator who does not know who the suspect is); lineup composition (the non-suspects included in a lineup resemble the eyewitness’s description of the perpetrator and the suspect should not stand out); witness instructions (the person viewing a lineup is told that the perpetrator may not be in the lineup but the investigation will continue regardless); confidence statements (at the time of identification, the eyewitness provides a statement in her own words indicating a level of confidence in the identification); recording of identification procedures (the identification is videotaped entirely); and sequential presentation (lineup members are presented one-by-one instead of side-by-side; because research is ongoing on this reform, the Innocence Project recommends it as an optional addition to the reforms above).

So far, nine states have moved towards more reliable identification techniques. However, these improvements are still inconsistent from station to station.

Click here to download the report.

Also, check out IPF’s page on misidentification.

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