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Eyewitness Identification Might Not Be Very Reliable

June 9, 2016 | Written by Dan Margolis

Eyewitnesses can play a powerful role in the investigation of a crime, but their reliability has become increasingly called into question in Ohio and around the country. In fact, incorrect identification by eyewitnesses is the largest contributor to wrongful convictions, according to USA Today. A report found that “75 percent of convictions overturned through DNA testing” could be correlated to misidentifications by eyewitnesses.

There are several issues that contribute to the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. For one, there lacks a standard process by which witnesses identify suspects. For presenting live lineups, 50 percent of agencies with 500 or more officers have no policy, and when it comes to photo lineups, 25 percent lack one.

Additionally, few law enforcement agencies utilize blind conditions for lineups, which is included in the guidelines put out by the National Institute of Justice in 1999. The same report found 90 percent do not use blind processes. Bias or unintentional influence could occur when the law enforcement personnel conducting the identification procedures with the eyewitness have any sort of knowledge of the suspects beforehand. This could then lead to misidentification.

It is not just the setup for identifying suspects that creates potential unreliability in eyewitness testimony; poor memory and recall also play a role, according to the American Bar Association. It is possible for confusion and unconscious transference to happen, leading to misidentification. Additionally, the location of the witness and how long he or she is in the presence of the alleged suspect also plays a key role in the ability to correctly identify the person.

Not only can memory be imprecise, but stress also impacts the ability to create a clear memory. The identification accuracy is reduced by about 10 percent when a weapon is present during the alleged crime. Time also reduces the ability of a witness to accurately recall certain components of the crime and/or alleged perpetrator. Although eyewitnesses continue to play an important role in identifying suspects and carrying out justice, it is important that juries understand the issues that make it imperfect.

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