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Is eyewitness identification a reliable form of evidence?

Law enforcement departments in Wisconsin and across the nation use eyewitness identification as a source of evidence when building a criminal case. Yet, not all instances of eyewitness identification yield accurate results. In some cases, this form of evidence could lead to wrongful conviction of an innocent person.

According to the Innocence Project, 360 people were released from prison after DNA testing proved they were innocent of committing a crime. In 71% of those cases, eyewitness misidentification was involved in the wrongful convictions.

Flaws in the identification process

Flaws in the physical lineup process can lead to misidentification. The lineup administrator may inadvertently lead the witness to select a certain person from the lineup using verbal or physical cues. Furthermore, the lineup may be organized in such a way that there is only one person in the lineup that matches the perpetrators description.

To minimize the chances of wrongful identification, lineup administrators should be blind to any information regarding the case. Administrators should also follow a script and let the witness know that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup.  In addition, a lineup organization should include more than one person matching the suspect’s description.

Flaws in eyewitness memory

Studies show that certain variables can influence a witness’s ability to select a suspect from a lineup. These include the following:

  • The amount of time elapsed from when the crime took place until the lineup.
  • The distance between the eyewitness and the perpetrator
  • Whether a weapon was used in the crime
  • The amount of light present when the crime was committed
  • Whether the perpetrator was wearing a mask
  • Whether the race of the eyewitness differs from the perpetrator

Sadly, one eyewitness identification may convince a jury to convict a defendant, even in the absence of solid evidence.

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