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Why eyewitness suspect identifications cannot be trusted

Anyone who has ever been involved in an accident or witnessed a crime may have been asked to describe what happened as well as who or what they saw. Unfortunately, the human brain is remarkably inaccurate at capturing and retaining information and details that may be helpful in these types of situations. This appears to be especially true with regard to eyewitnesses to crimes as "eyewitness misidentification was a factor in more than 70 percent of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases."

According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification has been identified as the number one reason why wrongful convictions occur and there are numerous factors that often contribute to the misidentification of suspects. In general, most people have difficulty remembering the faces and personal identifying attributes of strangers. Additionally, research confirms that people commit even more identification errors when asked to identify an individual of a different race.

Compounding these problems are the questionable methods that law enforcement officials readily employ when asking an eyewitness to pick out a suspect from a lineup or out of a stack of photographs. For example, a prime suspect may be the only individual in the lineup that is a certain race or that has facial hair. In other cases, an eyewitness may struggle to identify a suspect and express doubt about his or her decision. However, upon introducing eyewitness evidence to a jury, the prosecution proclaims that the eyewitness was 100 percent certain of his or her identification.

The introduction of DNA evidence in criminal cases has helped exonerate hundreds of wrongly convicted individuals and also exposed the shocking unreliability of eyewitness identifications. While some states have taken steps to implement reform procedures aimed to improve the eyewitness identification process, New York is not one of them.

Source: MPR.org, "How reliable is eyewitness testimony?," Kerri Miller, April 4, 2016

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