Ernenwein & Johnson, LLP

Limitations of eyewitness identification

Eyewitness identification is a tool often used by law enforcement to help identify a suspect of a crime. Departments may use an eyewitness lineup or a photograph lineup to ask witnesses who they believe committed the crime. Yet, a multitude of studies show that this form of identification may not always provide accurate and reliable results. In some cases, eyewitness identification may contribute to the wrongful conviction of an innocent person. 

Of all of the cases where DNA evidence showed people were erroneously convicted of a crime, approximately 71% involved eyewitness misidentification. When an eyewitness chooses the wrong suspect from a lineup, officers may waste their time investigating the wrong person while the actual perpetrator goes free. There are a myriad of factors that can lead to misidentification. First, the way the lineup is organized can lead to the wrong person being chosen. If the perpetrator has a beard and tattoo, the lineup should contain more than person that matches those characteristics. The lineup administrator should have no prior knowledge regarding the crime, and should let the witness know the suspect may or may not be present in the lineup. Finally, all lineups should be taped so the judge and attorneys may watch the procedure to ensure there was no leading of the witness. 

Other factors that may be involved in an eyewitness lineup is the witnesses ability to remember small physical characteristics of the perpetrator. This is especially true if the witness is of a different race than the suspect. Before a jury and/or judge uses eyewitness identification as a piece of evidence, they should take this information into account. 



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