Contrary to what some may think, not all people behind bars have committed a crime. Since 1989, at least 325 people in the United States have been released from their prison sentences after DNA evidence proved their innocence. In some cases, innocent people were given the death penalty before the mistake was discovered years later. The Texas court system was responsible for wrongfully incriminating 52 of those people, according to the Innocence Project. Many people blame a flawed U.S. judicial system for these erroneous guilty convictions. While there are many factors that play a role in sending an innocent person to prison, eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of this unfortunate phenomenon.
The innocence Project reported that eyewitness misidentification played a role in at least 72 percent of the 325 wrongful convictions that were overturned by DNA evidence. Even though a number of studies have proven that eyewitness testimony and identification procedures are inherently inaccurate, many courts still accept it as admissible evidence in a criminal trial.
In order to study the effects of eyewitness testimony, researchers presented a jury with circumstantial evidence in a criminal trial. Approximately 18 percent of the jurors found the defendant guilty of the crime. The same evidence was presented to a jury along with testimony from a single eyewitness. Remarkably, 72 percent of the jury found the defendant guilty with the addition of the eyewitness testimony.
Factors leading to eyewitness error
There are several factors that can lead a victim or witness to choose the wrong suspect from a photo or physical lineup. According to the Innocence Project of Texas and the American Bar Association, these include:
Lineup administrator coercion: In some lineup cases, the administrator may unintentionally or knowing give cues as to the suspect’s identity. Law enforcement agencies are encouraged to use double-blind lineup procedures in order to avoid this problem.
Environmental factors: Certain details, such as the amount of lighting that was present at the crime scene and how far away the witness was standing from the perpetrator, play a role in a witness’s ability to accurately identify the suspect. Other factors, such as whether the suspect was wearing a mask are also considered.
Improper lineup organization: The people in charge of organizing the lineup should make sure that more than one person have key characteristics matching the suspect’s description. For example, if the suspect was said to have had a beard, there should be several people with a beard present in the lineup.
Human memory: Studies show that the human memory is highly susceptible to suggestion, change and personal perception, according to PBS.org. As time passes, the witness may forget certain details or unintentionally change what they saw as they learn new facts about the case.
Further studies show that when a weapon is used in a crime, such as assault with a deadly weapon, witnesses are less likely to remember key features of the suspect. Therefore, they are less likely to make an accurate identification.
The role of an attorney
People who face criminal charges may be overwhelmed at prospects of spending time in prison. This is especially true if the suspect is innocent of the crime that he or she is accused of committing. A criminal defense attorney may offer peace of mind by ensuring that your rights are upheld in a court of law.