Eyewitness identification: Seeing is not always believing

| Dec 7, 2020 | Criminal Law |

Imagine that someone is on trial for murder. There’s not a lot of physical evidence, but the prosecution has a witness who picked the defendant out of a lineup. That witness is confident of the defendant’s guilt. This should be the end of the story, right? How can a confident eyewitness be wrong?

The answer to this question may surprise you. The truth is that eyewitness identification is far from reliable, and can sometimes be wildly inaccurate. Yet it continues to be among the most compelling pieces of evidence in criminal trials for serious crimes like murder. How problematic is this practice? A criminal justice advocacy group called The Innocence Project notes that of the more than 375 wrongful convictions it has helped to overturn, mistaken eyewitness ID played a role in about 69 percent of cases.

Where the problems occur

Eyewitness ID is typically reliable and trustworthy in cases where the witness already knew the defendant by name and face. But these types of cases are somewhat rare. More often, a witness saw a stranger for a brief period of time while witnessing something scary and traumatic (like a murder or robbery). The suspect’s face may have been partially covered. The lighting conditions may have been poor. Therefore, they didn’t see the suspect nearly as well as they may think they did.

Problems also often occur during the police investigation process when witnesses are asked to identify the suspect through a photo lineup or in-person lineup. Here are just some of the issues The Innocence Project and others have uncovered:

  • Numerous studies have shown that people are much more likely to correctly identify the face of someone who shares their race than they are of someone of a different race
  • Witnesses often assume that one of the people in a given lineup must be the suspect, so they take a guess – even if no one looks like the person they remember seeing
  • Police officers typically have ideas about which suspect they think is guilty, and they often end up (intentionally or unintentionally) biasing witnesses through body language or how they phrase questions
  • A witness might not feel confident that they chose the right person, but their confidence grows over time because a police officer makes offhand comments like “you did a great job,” or, “I think we got him.” By the time the witness testifies at trial, his or her confidence has grown because of those comments.

Can the process be fixed?

Justice reform advocacy groups have come up with a list of recommended changes that would eliminate or reduce many of these errors and biases. Approximately 24 states have adopted the measures, including Montana. But there is much work to be done. Anyone facing serious criminal charges needs to work with an experienced defense attorney who understands the problems with and limitations of eyewitness identification.