Most people have watched crime shows where the guilty party is picked out of a police lineup by a witness to the crime. The witness’s testimony is used at trial to send the wrongdoer to prison. TV makes it all seem so simple.
However, as is usually the case, real life is more complex. Eyewitness testimony can be a powerful tool for the prosecution. That does not necessarily mean it is always accurate. Witnesses may be suffering from several issues that can call the accuracy of their identification into question. In some cases, witnesses may even be outright lying.
Misidentification is common
The National Registry of Exonerations collects information about people who were convicted of a crime and later exonerated in the U.S. Of the roughly 1,900 people the registry shows have been found innocent, 30 percent were convicted because an eyewitness misidentified them as the perpetrator.
Deliberately identifying the wrong person is also more common than many people may realize. The National Registry of Exonerations found that in 26 percent of the recorded exonerations, the witness purposely identified the wrong person.
Many factors can contribute to false identification
For witnesses that mistakenly pick the wrong perpetrator, there are obvious factors that could lead to misidentification like bad lighting, poor eyesight or other distracting factors. There are many other ways a person’s identification can be influenced. If a law enforcement office is present during a lineup, how the officer acts may have sway over the witness.
Psychologists have also been studying the effect of stress on eyewitnesses. The study is examining whether increased anxiety affects the accuracy of a witness’s memory.
Other studies show that a person with a limited memory for detail may have a hard time storing long term memories. If an event took place a long time ago, a witness with this type of limited memory would have a hard time accurately recalling events. Other people also have a hard time observing multiple objects at a time, so as eyewitnesses, their testimony may also be less accurate.
If an eyewitness has identified you as the wrongdoer in a criminal case, you should not assume you will be convicted. Eyewitness testimony can be wrong, and an experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to uncover reasons the witness’s testimony should be questioned.