Questioning the reliability of witness identifications (2 of 2)

In our first post in this series, we looked at several factors that can decrease the reliability of witness identifications in criminal prosecutions. While witnesses may earnestly believe that they are, in fact, identifying the same individual that they saw commit a criminal act, too often the witness is simply wrong. Witness identifications can be much less reliable than is commonly thought.

You have likely heard of the Innocence Project. This is a non-profit group which works to free those who have been wrongly convicted of criminal acts. This non-profit relies heavily on DNA evidence to show that the prosecution was wrong in its allegations. Of the 300 prisoners it has freed, about 75 percent were convicted based on witness identification.

In many cases, whether intentionally or not, the police investigators may facilitate a false identification by the witness. When looking at a lineup of potential suspects, witnesses want to help the police catch the “bad guy.” This can lead to an erroneous identification if the actual perpetrator is not in the lineup. Instead, the witness may simply choose the person in the lineup that is the best fit for the witness’s recollection of the event.

In the Troy Davis case, a suspect was accused of killing a Georgia police officer but maintained his innocence until the time he was executed. Out of the nine witnesses who originally said that he was the killer, seven later recanted all or part of their testimony. Some of the witnesses said that they had been coerced by law enforcement in making their original identification.

While witness identification is still largely regarded as very reliable evidence, some courts have started to realize that it is not as reliable as was once thought. One state supreme court, after noting the growing body of research and evidence that demonstrates the unreliable nature of witness identifications acknowledged, “Indeed, it is now widely known that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the country.”

Source: MSNBC, “Witness error: How mind tricks can put the innocent behind bars,” Miranda Leitsinger, Feb. 12, 2012