Eyewitness misidentification may lead to wrongful incrimination

Eyewitness misidentification has led to the wrongful incarceration of countless people through the years, and several factors may be to blame.

Many Arizona residents believe that people incarcerated in state and federal prisons are guilty of committing a serious crime, and deserve to be locked away from society. Surprisingly, this may not always be the case. Since 1989, 325 people have been released from prison and cleared of their sentences after DNA evidence proved their innocence, according to the Innocence Project. In approximately 72 percent of those cases, mistaken identification contributed to the wrongful conviction of innocent people. While these statistics are alarming and unjust, people are struggling to understand how flaws in the system could result in erroneous incarceration.

One Arizona man was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for sexual assault, kidnapping and child molestation. According to the Innocence Project, he served nine years of his sentence before he was found to be innocent of the crime. The young boy who was victim to the egregious crimes had mistakenly identified the man as his assailant, because his attacker had a disfigured eye similar to the innocent man. The real criminal was later identified, when new DNA technology matched the semen found on the young boy’s clothes to a man already serving time in Texas. In the meantime, the innocent Arizona resident was made to register as a sex offender and suffered extensive trauma from the entire incident.

Factors leading to eyewitness misidentification

Unfortunately, cases like this have become more common as advanced technology is unlocking the real truth behind many crimes. How were these innocent people sent to prison in the first place? The U.S. justice system still values eyewitness testimony and identification as valuable evidence in court trials, even though it is proven to be unreliable. According to the American Bar Association, there are several factors that can influence a witness’s ability to accurately identify a suspect. These include but are not limited to:

  • The amount of time that has passed since the crime occurred. Over time, the witness may forget specific physical details of the suspect’s face or even become susceptible to suggestion.
  • Whether there was a weapon present during the crime. Studies show that when a weapon is used, such as in an armed robbery case, witnesses are less likely to remember details due to extremely high stress levels.
  • Flaws in the suspect lineup process. In some cases the lineup administrator may unintentionally encourage the witness to choose a certain suspect. Other cases may involve a lineup that is not organized properly and leads the witness. Flawed lineup procedures are a huge concern when it comes to inaccurate witness identifications.
  • Racial discrepancies between the eyewitness and the perpetrator of the crime. Studies show that people are less likely to accurately distinguish certain facial characteristics of people who are of a different race.

Many states have taken action to reduce lineup flaws and implement other procedures to improve eyewitness identification accuracy.

How an attorney can help

People who have been charged with a serious crime in Arizona may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of going to prison for an extended period of time. A knowledgeable criminal attorney may be extremely helpful in creating a strong defense for your case.

Keywords: eyewitness, identification, wrongful, conviction