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Eyewitness misidentification: Can it lead to wrongful conviction?

On Behalf of | Mar 2, 2022 | Criminal Defense

Not everyone convicted of a crime in Indiana or throughout the U.S. is guilty. According to the Innocence Project, more than 375 people have been released from prison after further DNA testing proved they were innocent. Of those cases, approximately 69% involved eyewitness misidentification.

Erroneous eyewitness identification can cause multiple issues for law enforcement, as well as the judge and jury in the case. If the wrong person is named in a lineup, officers may halt their investigation to find the true perpetrator. There are steps people can take to reduce the number of wrongful convictions based on eyewitness misidentification.

What factors influence an identification?

When a witness makes a selection from a lineup, they choose the person they believe committed the crime. Yet several factors come into play that can influence their ability to make an accurate selection. These factors include the following:

  • The lineup administrator may provide verbal or physical cues, prompting the witness to select a certain person from the lineup
  • The witness does not understand that the suspect may not be present in the lineup and feels forced to pick someone
  • The witness may not say how confident they are in their decision or selection

Environmental factors, such as the amount of light present, how far the witness was from the perpetrator and the amount of time that has passed from when the crime occurred, can also play a role in a witness’s ability to choose a perpetrator.

How to minimize misidentification

There is a number of steps officers can take to reduce errors in the physical lineup process. First, the lineup administrator should have no prior knowledge of the case. The administrator should also give the witness specific instructions and include the disclaimer that the suspect may or may not be present in the lineup.

Law enforcement should organize the lineup so it contains more than one person that matches the physical description of the perpetrator. Finally, the entire process should be taped so the judge or jury can review what happened if necessary.