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Incorrect witness identifications linked to false convictions

On Behalf of | Feb 14, 2020 | Criminal Defense

People in Maryland may think of eyewitness identifications as particularly strong evidence that a person committed a crime. However, research has shown that witness identifications may be particularly prone to human error; they are a major factor in wrongful convictions that have been overturned through new DNA evidence. The quality of an eyewitness identification may vary greatly depending on the police procedures used to obtain it. For example, police may praise witnesses for selecting a suspect or pressure them to identify someone from a photo or in-person lineup.

Individual memory is deeply flawed, and people in traumatic or violent situations may not remember everything about a person’s face or identifying characteristics. Poor police procedure may lead to some tentative or uncertain identifications firming up over time as witnesses become more convinced that they selected the correct face from a group of photos. As a result, people who were initially uncertain that they were correct may later testify with conviction about a criminal suspect’s identity. In cases where wrongfully convicted people were later exonerated through DNA evidence, 70% involved mistaken eyewitness identifications. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that these kinds of misidentifications are the single greatest contributor to wrongful convictions.

Researchers have noted that people in a room with police or other authority figures often inherently attempt to find the “right answer” and please those authorities, even while they want to identify the suspect correctly. They may feel confident that police have good reasons to suspect a specific person, or they may confuse one person with another that they have seen before.

People facing criminal charges may run up against a number of serious obstacles, including mistaken identification or police civil rights violations. A criminal defense attorney may help defendants to present a strong response and work to prevent a conviction.