Witness Misidentification: Costs, Causes, and Cures

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 9, 2012 @ 10:39 AM — Comments (0)

Northwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions web site states that, “erroneous eyewitness testimony — whether offered in good faith or perjured — is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions in the U.S. criminal justice system. According to The Innocence Project’s site, eyewitness misidentification plays a role in over 75 percent of cases that are overturned by DNA evidence. Looking at these numbers, it seems a bit ridiculous that the justice system would consider eyewitness testimony to be sacrosanct pieces of evidence, and yet they are.

Why exactly is it that witness misidentifications are so prevalent? The answer, frankly, is simple, and can be seen in social science research that has been conducted over the past 30 years. The Innocence Project makes a comparison between the human mind and tape recorders, asserting that the human mind is clearly not capable of taking in, processing, and recording exact details and events the way that a video camera or tape recorder can, and for that reason alone human memories should be taken as possibilities, not facts. Further, witnesses often experience some level of victimization as a result of being so closely involved with crime, and anyone who has been a victim of a crime can attest to the way that victimization affects one’s memory.

For a more engaging way to see the flaws of human perception and memory, watch this video. If you read ahead before watching, you’ll cheat yourself out of the experience!

Don’t read ahead…watch the video first.

Did you notice the moonwalking bear? I know I certainly did not when I first watched the video, but after viewing it again I cannot imagine how I missed it. If the human mind isn’t able to notice something so different while sitting in a calm, controlled environment, then how can it possibly be expected to register events under the stress undergone when watching a crime take place?

All of these things said, however, witness identifications and testimonies can be useful and powerful tools of the criminal justice system, if used correctly. There are a variety of steps that could be taken to decrease the probability of misidentification. Most of these measures could be implemented easily and with little to no cost to law enforcement, the legal system, or taxpayers.

Use of a double-blind procedure in orchestrating lineups could seriously cut down on accidental or intentional influencing of witnesses. This double-blind would ensure that neither the administrator or the lineup nor the witness would know which individual was the suspect. There is also a lineup protocol currently endorse by Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions, The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the MacArthur Justice Center that, in addition to using a double-blind procedure, presents suspects sequentially as opposed to placing them all side by side. This method is said to reduce the tendency of witnesses to make relative judgements about the suspects, which can often lead to misidentifications.

These methods are incredibly simple to implement and cost little-to-nothing to implement. If law enforcement agencies nationwide were to adopt these methods, they could seriously decrease the largest cause of wrongful convictions. In April of last year the Florida Senate passed a bill known as the Eyewitness Identification Reform Act. This bill would have implemented the above procedures and would also have instituted the use of educational materials and training for law enforcement officers regarding how to conduct a lineup, as well as a standard set of instructions for eyewitnesses before viewing the lineup. Unfortunately, the bill stalled and was ultimately withdrawn from consideration in the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, there is not a similar bill being proposed during this legislative session. I guess the citizens of Florida will have to wait until next year.

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