Criminal Law

What Is Witness Misidentification?

After a crime, police often look for victims and eyewitnesses to identify the alleged guilty party. During eyewitness identification procedures, such as a police lineup or a review of photos, police will ask witnesses to point out the wrongdoer.

Unfortunately, eyewitness accounts are not a foolproof method, and they can identify the wrong person. This is called "witness misidentification," and it is a leading cause of wrongful convictions.

How Common Is Witness Misidentification?

For various reasons, eyewitness memory and witness misidentification are real human errors. A mistaken eyewitness caused 69% of wrongful convictions that were later overturned using DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project.

Yet, eyewitness testimony continues to be one of the most commonly used – and widely believed – forms of evidence in criminal proceedings.

What Causes Wrong Eyewitness Identifications?

Eyewitness misidentifications can happen because the human memory does not work like a video recorder. Most people can't recall every detail of a particular moment in time so the accuracy of eyewitness testimony is not always trustworthy.

Events can become even harder to recall when they involve witnessing an event:

  • Quickly
  • Far away
  • In poor lighting
  • In outdoor or bad weather conditions
  • Under stress
  • In traumatic conditions

Many factors like these play into eyewitness misidentification, including what experts call "estimator variables" and "system variables." This is especially true in high-stress situations like witnessing an alleged crime taking place.

Estimator Variables vs. System Variables in Eyewitness Identification Procedures

Estimator variables are influences that are uncontrolled by the criminal justice system. This includes lighting, stress, and the races of the suspect and the witness.

On the other hand, system variables also affect eyewitness accounts. These are factors that the criminal justice system can control.

System variables include the methods law enforcement uses to perform:

  • Suspect lineups
  • Photo arrays of suspects
  • Questioning the eyewitness or victim

The methods should try to minimize the potential for misidentification by eyewitnesses. But a review of wrongfully convicted cases based on eyewitness testimony proves witness misidentification is a common factor in many wrongful convictions.

How Can Witness Misidentification Lead to a Wrongful Conviction?

Eyewitness misidentification can potentially lead to wrongful convictions in several ways:

  • Misidentifying the perpetrator of a crime, so law enforcement officials lose precious time pursuing the wrong person
  • Purposefully identifying the wrong person to blame the crime on someone else or providing false testimony
  • Receiving cues from law enforcement officials that identify the desired suspect when faced with lineups or photo arrays
  • Choosing whoever looks closest to the person witnessed at the crime scene rather than relying on actual memories of the crime
  • Judges and juries believing eyewitnesses, particularly when the witness is an innocent bystander or upstanding citizen who genuinely believes that they have identified the correct person

Double Blind Lineups as a Solution

A double blind lineup is a leading part of eyewitness identification reform from the Innocence Project. It requires the person who sets the lineup of possible perpetrators not to know who the suspect is. This helps prevent them from cueing the victim or eyewitness, whether intentionally or by accident. More states may adopt eyewitness identification reform in the future.

Consequences of Witness Misidentification

Notable past cases highlight the truly tragic consequences of convicting the wrong person. For example, Timothy Cole was convicted in Texas in 1986 of aggravated sexual assault after being repeatedly identified by the victim.

In 2009, DNA evidence cleared Cole and proved that another man, who had also confessed to the crime and later died in prison, was the actual perpetrator.

Not only was Cole wrongfully convicted of a violent crime based on eyewitness conviction, but he also lost over 20 years of his life to wrongful incarceration.

You should know the important next steps to take if you are accused of a crime you didn't commit.

Overturning a Wrongful Conviction Based on Witness Misidentification

Eyewitness misidentification may be a basis for overturning a wrongful conviction in some circumstances. This is particularly true if:

  • There was little other evidence in support of the conviction
  • Other evidence in your favor was not disclosed
  • Evidence was not brought forward in your trial or was discovered later
  • There was a lack of technology at the time

For instance, in older convictions, a lack of technology means they did not utilize DNA evidence.

Now, old evidence can be retested using DNA, which has resulted in exonerating people previously convicted based on witness misidentification.

Appealing A Criminal Conviction Based on Eyewitnesses

The appeals process in criminal cases is designed to confirm that the correct person was convicted. Every state has procedures for the review of a criminal conviction. It typically starts with the trial judge reconsidering the matter.

This request for review starts with filing a motion with the trial court. This motion explains the reasons that you believe your conviction was erroneous. It must also list any applicable law in support of those reasons.

In the case of witness misidentification, your motion would explain why and how the witness mistakenly identified the wrong person.

If your request for review by the trial judge is unsuccessful, you still have recourse through the appellate courts in your state.

If the appeals court rejects your appeal, you can still further appeal your case to the highest court in your state, such as the state supreme court.

Winning an Eyewitness Misidentification Case

If you and your attorney prove the eyewitness account was wrong, and your sentence is overturned, you have options. You can sue for compensation for your time spent in prison. Should your appeal lead to your release, you should consider your options carefully with the help of an attorney experienced in civil litigation.