Eyewitness Identification Leading to Wrongful Convictions

When a violent crime has been committed, police will speak to the victims and witnesses to learn any information about the potential suspect. Often this information is crucial in apprehending the person who committed the crime. While eyewitness identification is an integral part of law enforcement's investigation, it is not foolproof. There have been several instances where the wrong person has served time for a crime that he or she did not commit. DNA evidence is being used more frequently to show that a person is innocent and has been wrongfully imprisoned.

The Florida Innocence Commission is addressing this issue by studying potential causes of mistaken identity. The Innocence Commission consists of attorneys, judges and law enforcement personnel from throughout the state who will examine convictions of innocent parties. Members were appointed by the Florida Supreme Court and are tasked with identifying procedures that will ensure that those who are convicted of crimes actually committed the crimes.

Florida has had 12 people released from prisons after being cleared by DNA evidence. Nationwide, that number grows to 261. Of those 261, more than 75 percent contained some type of eyewitness misidentification. Gary Wells, a professor at Iowa State who has extensively studied witness identification, says that witnesses pick the wrong person nearly 20 percent of the time.

One of the main tasks of the commission is to develop consistent identification practices for use by law enforcement. Since there is no uniform method in place, local agencies can use whatever methods they feel are practical. While this may help move cases along, this may allow for inconsistencies to arise in these investigations.

For instance, photo lineups should be an area of great concern to law enforcement. When witnesses are looking at the photos of suspects, they should see the photos one at a time. There should be no verbal or visual clues provided by police. In fact, the person conducting the photo lineup should have no idea who the actual suspect is. This will allow the witness or victim to truly examine the photos and take all the time necessary to go through the lineup.

Cases of mistaken identity happen frequently. Most of the time, they do not result in someone being sent to prison when he or she is innocent. If you have been accused of a crime, speak to a criminal defense attorney in your area. Your case will have many specific factors, which will need to be discussed with someone who understands the law.