Eyewitness Misidentification

Misidentification is the number one cause of wrongful convictions. Whether by perjury or eyewitness/victim error, innocent people are spending time behind bars for crimes they did not commit. The criminal justice system puts a lot of faith in eyewitness testimony, but there is no way to guarantee their testimony is fact. Only after innocence is proven is it made evident that eyewitness testimony was erroneous. Due to this fact, it is not possible to know the number of wrongful convictions by mistaken identity, because many who are mistakenly identified will never have a chance to prove their innocence. Furthermore, the scope of the problem cannot be known because of instances where prosecutors drop the case or in cases where people are acquitted after reversals on appeal. While appellate decisions are published and readily available online, the problem with trial acquittals or dropped cases, is that they are not systematically catalogued and made public, so there is no way to be sure of the role of eyewitness testimony in those cases.

The Facts
In June of 2000, an analysis by the Center on Wrongful Convictions found that of 51 exonerations by DNA testing in the United States and Canada, 76.1% had been based in whole or in part on eyewitness identification testimony.
Another study of 86 exonerated capital cases by the Center on Wrongful Convictions found:

  • Of the 86 cases, eyewitness testimony played a role in 46 (53.5%)
  • In 33 cases (38.4%), eyewitness identification was the only evidence
  • Of the 46 cases that involved eyewitness testimony, 32 cases only had one eyewitness (69.6%), while the remaining 14 cases had multiple eyewitnesses (30.4%)
  • In 19 cases (41.3%), the eyewitnesses were strangers, in 9 cases (19.6%), they were non-accomplice acquaintances

There are multiple remedies to minimize the number of wrongful convictions by mistaken identification. The most important remedy is to reform eyewitness identification procedures.

Methods of Reform

Sequential lineups is one technique that has been increasingly used in eyewitness identification procedures. In a sequential lineup, the witness is shown lineup members one at a time. The witness has to identify whether or not the person is the perpetrator before they can move on to the next person. This method differs from the traditional procedure of the witness viewing all members at once (simultaneous lineup). The sequential lineup procedure has proven to be more accurate because it forces witnesses to use an absolute judgment strategy rather than a relative judgment strategy (where they compare all the members and simply choose the best match from the group). After all, it is certainly possible that the perpetrator is not in the lineup at all.

Double-blind is another technique in lineup procedures. In double-blind procedures, neither the administrator nor the witness know who the suspect is. This prevents the administrator from influencing the witness by unintentional or intentional clues to the identity of the suspect.

Specific instruction to witnesses includes spoken instructions from the administrator to the eyewitness. These instructions are meant to deter the witness from feeling forced to make a selection from the lineup. Specific instructions also prevent the witness from looking at the administrator for feedback during the procedure; they are made aware that the administrator does not know who the suspect is and that he or she will not be able to assist the witness during the procedure. One recommended instruction is that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup.

Composing the lineup: Photographs of the suspect should be selected that do not bring unreasonable attention to him or her. In addition, it is vital that non-suspect photographs and lineup members are chosen by their resemblance to the description provided by the witness, not by their resemblance to the suspect. The suspect should also not really stand out from the other photographs or lineup members.

Confidence statements: Immediately following the lineup procedure, the witness should provide, in his or her own words, a statement regarding his or her confidence in making the right identification.

Recorded lineup procedure: Where possible, the lineup procedures should be video-recorded. Audio or written records should be made where this is not possible.



Courtesy of Innocence Project of Minnesota (©2007)