Eyewitness identification process may lead to wrongful arrests

Studies show that the eyewitness identification process is not always reliable and flaws in the process could send innocent people to prison.

In California and in states across the country, suspect lineups are often used to help eyewitnesses identify the perpetrator of a crime. As law enforcement officers organize and conduct these physical and photo lineups, critical errors can be made. These procedural flaws in the lineup process could lead the eyewitness to choose an innocent person out the lineup and name him or her as the perpetrator. While the U.S. Courts are designed to convict the guilty and protect the innocent in a criminal trial, this does not always occur. Years, sometimes decades later, re-evaluation of the case may prove that the eyewitness's ID was incorrect, and that an innocent person has been wrongfully locked away in prison.

One California man spent seven years in prison after an eyewitness hesitantly chose him from a lineup. According to the Innocence Project, the eyewitness stated that she wasn't completely sure whether she was picking the actual perpetrator from the lineup. However, she later identified him as the attacker during the court trial, and the man she chose was convicted of sexual assault partly based on her ID. Years later, DNA testing helped to name the identity of the real perpetrator, and the innocent man was finally released.

The power of eyewitness ID

Many people believe that based on the facts of a criminal case, an innocent person could not be sentenced as guilty in a crime they did not commit. Studies show that judges and juries are extremely influenced by eyewitness identifications. In one study published by PBS.org, two juries were presented with circumstantial evidence involving a robbery-murder case. Although the same evidence was shown in both trials, the second trial also included a single eyewitness identification. Approximately 18 percent of the jurors found the defendant guilty in the first trial w no eyewitness ID existed. Surprisingly, 72 percent of the jurors name the defendant guilty in the case involving the ID.

Procedural flaws

What is it about the eyewitness identification process that makes the results unreliable and possibly inaccurate? According to the American Bar Association, lineups that are not conducted by a blind administrator can be risky. The person conducting the lineup should not have any prior knowledge of the case in order to prevent any leading of the witness. Furthermore, lineups should be organized so that one person does not stand out from the others. For example, if a victim describes his or her assailant as bald with brown eyes, there should be more than one person included in the lineup that is bald with brown eyes.

Organizing a defense

If you are facing criminal charges, you may be overwhelmed by the stress and complexity of the process. You may have questions regarding your case and you may need help understanding what your options are. A California attorney may be able to answer those questions. Depending on the circumstances of your case, an attorney may be able to help you organize a strong defense and increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.