Eyewitness errors: Identification protocol often raises risk of mistakes

Many Spokane criminal cases use or even rely on eyewitness testimony. Unfortunately, research suggests eyewitness recollections are not always reliable, even in intimate crimes such as sexual assault. Visual factors may prevent an eyewitness from properly observing the scene, and even with ideal viewing conditions, the accuracy of the eyewitness's memory may erode over time. A recent report highlights the danger of eyewitness errors and the law enforcement procedures that may promote these errors.

Problematic protocols

Human memory is malleable, and memories are constantly updated or changed, according to the Washington Post. This means feedback from others can significantly influence the way an eyewitness remembers an event. The National Academy of Sciences report recommended that law enforcement authorities address this issue by implementing standardized policies during eyewitness identifications.

Eyewitness identification procedures vary significantly by jurisdiction; some jurisdictions already implement at least one of the best practices identified in the report. Still, the report recommends that all authorities start using the following measures to obtain more accurate identifications:

  • Conduct blind lineups - if the officer knows the identity of the primary suspect, the officer may give the eyewitness inadvertent clues or feedback. To eliminate bias, the officer conducting the lineup should not know the identity of the suspect.
  • Give eyewitnesses standardized instructions - instructions should not bias witnesses to think they must make a positive identification. Instead, witnesses should be told that the perpetrator may not be present and the investigation will continue regardless of the identification.
  • Take witness confidence statements - by the time of trial, eyewitnesses often have received feedback that gives them an exaggerated sense of confidence in their identifications. When identifications are made, authorities should ask eyewitnesses to state how confident they are in their accuracy.
  • Recording the identification process - videotapes can create a permanent record, documenting any uncertainties or errors on the part of eyewitnesses or authorities.

Unfortunately, authorities may be reluctant to make these changes and risk reducing the number of identifications made, according to the Washington Post. Still, research indicates these modifications are essential, given the current risk of eyewitness errors.

The case for reform

According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness errors are the leading known cause of wrongful conviction. The same source found that eyewitness errors played a role in 75 percent of these convictions, with racial disparities often acting as a contributing factor; 53 percent of misidentifications occurred when the eyewitness and accused were different races.

Incorporating evidence from multiple sources does not guarantee eyewitness accuracy. Shockingly, in 38 percent of cases involving eyewitness mistakes, multiple eyewitnesses wrongly identified the same person as the guilty party. Still, despite the clear issues with eyewitness testimony, it is frequently used. In 50 percent of misidentification cases, eyewitness testimony was the primary evidence against the innocent person.

Changes to law enforcement protocols could help reduce these misidentifications. Still, the risk may never completely be mitigated, due to the dynamic and fallible nature of human memory. In light of this danger, anyone facing criminal charges supported by eyewitness testimony should meet with a criminal defense attorney who understands the many shortcomings of this type of evidence.