An Innocent Suspect’s Worst Nightmare: Eyewitness Misidentification

By: Madeline Louis

Wrongful convictions are undoubtedly one of the most dangerous realities for any criminal justice system as there is no justice served when an innocent man or woman faces conviction. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, the United States has seen 2,705 exonerations since 1989. In total, these convictions account for 24,609 years spent wrongfully behind bars. There are a number of causes that can contribute to wrongful convictions, however eyewitness misidentification is cited as the most common cause. For those deciding criminal cases, whether that be a judge or jury, an eyewitness’s testimony can be very convincing. Without the ability to travel back in time and see the situation with your own eyes, trusting those of the victim or eyewitness may be the next best thing.

Of the 375 convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the United States, 69% were caused by eyewitness misidentification. There are some aspects of traditional identification methods that have the potential to yield unreliable results. The Innocence Project outlines some of these potential problems. For example, when an administrator knows who the suspect is in a lineup, he or she can subconsciously suggest which person an eyewitness should choose. For an anxious eyewitness with a vague memory of a crime, this can have a detrimental effect. Additionally, a doubtful eyewitness may feel pressured to pick a suspect in a lineup if they are not instructed of the possibility that the true perpetrator is not actually present. Other issues include lineups where the suspect is placed with “fillers” who do not match the suspect’s description or having a suspect be the only one to make repeat appearances in different lineups. Placing the fate of a person on the shoulders of an eyewitness in such a suggestive environment can lead to misidentification and the conviction of innocent people.

The Innocent Project however, has created procedural reform to directly counteract the problems cited above in hopes to directly reduce the number of eyewitness misidentifications. These reforms consist of 5 policy changes supported by over 30 years of peer-reviewed research that have been backed by the American Bar Association and the National Institute of Justice. First, the reforms insist upon a “double-blind” procedure where the administrator is unaware of who the suspect is to avoid inappropriate cues (subconscious or not). Second, instructions must be given to the eyewitness that a suspect may or may not actually be in the lineup to avoid choices fueled by presumptions. Third, fillers should fit the suspect’s description to avoid the suspect standing out. Fourth, statements should be taken immediately after identification for purposes of documenting an eyewitness’s confidence in the choice without which, a jury could assume absolute positivity. Fifth and finally, procedures must always be documented so they can be revisited by the judge or jury.

Despite the simplicity of these changes, many jurisdictions continue to use the unreliable methods previously cited. Minnesota is the most recent state to adopt these reforms, joining 24 others. Arizona is not one of these states. Should this be a national requirement? Given the consequences of wrongful convictions and the clear benefit that a more regulated identification procedure can have, it seems like a change that should not have to be forcefully imposed. While it is true that this change may require an allocation of additional resources, they pale in comparison to the resources needed to incarcerate innocent individuals. This is a reform that will hopefully be implemented by all states in the future to help limit the number of wrongful convictions in the United States.

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