One of the main causes of wrongful convictions is eyewitness misidentifications. Despite a high rate of error (as many as 1 in 4 stranger eyewitness identifications are wrong), eyewitness identifications are considered some of the most powerful evidence against a suspect. Why are eyewitness identifications subject to such a high rate of error? There are numerous reasons for this: (1) witnesses are subject to high stress or anxiety; (2) the human memory tends to reconstruct incidents because humans do not have the capability to record memories like a video recorder; (3) witnesses often focus on weapons, not the identity of the perpetrator; (4) suggestive eyewitness identification procedures used by police or prosecutorial agencies; and (5) cross-racial eyewitness identifications are known to be incredibly suspect.
An in-court eyewitness identification of a perpetrator is incredibly powerful to a jury. In fact, with the exception of DNA evidence, nothing can be more damning for a defendant than a witness telling the jury that the defendant was at the scene and participated in the crime. But sometimes, a witness’s identification can be mistaken.
High Stress Environment & Trauma
When an individual is placed in a high-stress situation, their ability to accurately observe and later recall events is diminished. For example, if someone is confronted with the sound or sight of gunfire during the night, the typical reaction is to look for the gun first, then find cover. The high stress of the event puts the witness in survival mode, and makes it much more likely that the witness will be unable to accurately recall an event later. Any traumatic situation, such as an assault, murder, rape, or robbery, will make it much harder for a witness to identify the perpetrator.
As we walk down a busy street, it is impossible for our brain to interpret everything we see. In fact, our memories take in bits and pieces of the information and process the important aspects. Details like a stranger’s height, weight, age, and hair are often overlooked. Later, when the police ask a witness to recount specific details of a suspect, we do not have the ability to rewind a video in our brain to figure out what we saw. Instead, our brain fills in details we cannot recount in an effort to recreate a full picture. This often results in bad eyewitness identifications.
Witnesses commonly testify as to their focus on the perpetrator’s weapon. Typically, a witness can recount the exact color, size, and shape of a gun or a knife pulled on them. What they cannot do, however, is reproduce the perpetrator in their brain.
One of the biggest contributors to eyewitness misidentifications is the way in which the investigator presents the perpetrator to the witness. At the time the investigator prepares a lineup, whether it be in a 6-pack or otherwise, just knowing who the suspect is can be problematic. Often times, a police officer might inadvertently use subtle clues through pauses, hesitations, gestures, or smiles, which may subconsciously taint the witness’s ability to pick a familiar face. The better practice is to use a double-blind procedure. The officer showing the photographs to the witness should not know the identity of the suspect. In such a scenario, it is impossible for the officer to inadvertently influence a witness in picking out a perpetrator.
Quite possibly the worst eyewitness identification procedure of all belongs to that of the Show-Up. A Show-Up is conducted where an officer brings a witness to a location to show the witness a suspect that has been apprehended. Often times, the witness will see the suspect in handcuffs or in the back of a police car. The automatic assumption is that the officers must have additional evidence on the person, so this must be the perpetrator. Our brain fills in the gaps with the details of the person in the car, and the face of the suspect becomes the person we saw commit the crime. Thus, over time, the witness becomes more certain of their identification even though it is wrong. Many courts have disallowed show-up lineups because of this.
The use of six-pack lineups has been shown to be problematic as well. Police officers are trained to construct six-pack lineups in a way that reduces the possibility of a bad identification. Those procedures include: (1) including only one suspect per lineup; (2) selecting five fillers that have features similar to the suspect, including hair length, weight, height, and clothing type; and (3) ensuring that all six photographs have similar backgrounds, lighting, and distance from the camera to the suspect. Even with these procedures in place, problems often occur.
CIP client Guy Miles was convicted of a bank robbery he did not commit. The investigating officer constructed six pack photo lineups to show the witnesses. The officer attempted to have some similar features in each of the lineups. Unfortunately, the officer included more than one suspect per lineup, increasing the probability for the witness to select a suspect through a lucky guess rather than by actually remembering the suspect.
Subconsciously, it has been shown that witnesses want to satisfy the police by picking an individual. Witnesses believe the perpetrator of the crime is one of the individuals included in the six-pack. Thus, there is pressure to select a person that even somewhat resembles the person they saw.
As stated above, once a witness identifies a suspect, whether it be in a six-pack, show-up, or live lineup, they tend to focus on the details of the person they identify and fill their memory of the incident with the more recently viewed characteristics. By the time the witness testifies in court, the identification has become so strong that they feel there is no room for error.
Studies have shown that witnesses are more likely to make an identification, whether accurate or inaccurate, when all the images are presented together in a group (for example, a six-pack). When the images are presented sequentially, one after another, witnesses make fewer identifications, but more accurate.
Poor eyewitness identifications are a problem across the country but reforms are possible. New Jersey has instituted eyewitness identification procedures across the board. The guidelines call for the double-blind administration of photo or live lineup identifications. Moreover, the admissibility of all line-ups in New Jersey courts is contingent on the administration of the identification procedure being recorded. In addition to these changes, the sequential presentation of an unlimited number of photographs would result in far fewer wrongful convictions cases as a result of eyewitness identifications.